Thursday, April 30, 2020

When Charedi Spokesmen Misrepresent What Charedim Really Believe

An article in Ha'aretz by none other than Rabbi Avi Shafran, Director of Public Affairs for Agudath Israel of America, responds to the criticism of the charedi rabbinic leadership for delaying the closure of yeshivos. Rabbi Shafran complains as follows:
"Those leaders were ridiculed for taking seriously the Talmud’s teaching that the “breath of the children” exhaled in their Torah study verily upholds the world. But here’s the thing – and it’s a most important thing: We Haredim really believe that. It’s odd that liberal-minded Jews tend to allow others their particularistic beliefs if those others follow any one of a myriad of belief systems. But not if they are their fellow Jews (believing, in fact, in what has been called Judaism for millennia)... Yes, we Haredim actually believe that children’s learning Torah maintains the world."
As usual, there are a number of distortions tightly wrapped up here.

First is that he is trying to conflate very different things. The Gedolim were not ridiculed for taking seriously something that "has been called Judaism for millennia." They were ridiculed for saying that cancelling yeshivah studies and forcing the students to study at home would be more dangerous than coronavirus, because "Torah protects." Which was something that they were later forced to retract, because it was indeed ridiculous.

Second is that charedim do not "really believe" that yeshivos protect from coronavirus. Some of them might believe that they believe it, but none of them really believe it. In fact, charedim don't believe that Torah protects from any form of illness - that's why they want the same medical care, and suffer from the same illnesses, as everyone else. They just didn't believe that coronavirus was a serious illness that threatens them - it was something "out there," not something that was part of their own world. That's why some insular chassidim show a total disregard for coronavirus even if they are not in yeshivah. Those who realize that coronavirus is actually a real danger shutter the yeshivos.

Third is that the reason why liberal-minded Jews who allow the particularistic beliefs of others are nevertheless intolerant of certain charedi beliefs is not due to hypocrisy or intolerance. And it is wrong for Rabbi Shafran to insinuate such an accusation. Rather, it is because charedi beliefs affect the rest of society! When Bnei Brak's hospital is bursting at the seams and forced to send patients to other hospitals, this drains resources from other communities.

Fourth is that it is simply false to claim that protection against coronavirus is identical with traditional teachings about the world being maintained by children learning Torah. It is reading a maximalist interpretation into the Sages' words that was never intended. Their statement that the world exists for the sake of children learning is simply their way of saying that it's a very important part of our society. (There's a similar statement in the Gemara about the world existing for the sake of circumcision!) It doesn't mean that during summer break, or a pandemic, there is a metaphysical effect that causes the world to break down, and that it's therefore reason to keep schools open and increase the chances of infection.

Fifth, since after a while they did indeed close the yeshivos in order to protect against coronavirus, what does this demonstrate? Surely it shows that they themselves conceded that their position was incorrect. In which case, it was indeed appropriate that they were originally criticized for it. And, as my friend David Sedley pointed out, it surely means that they need to re-examine their belief that divine, traditional Judaism teaches that students must learn Torah in yeshivos in order to maintain the world and protect from pandemics.

This leads us to another problem with Rabbi Shafran's article. He complains in this article, as he often does, about a false accusation that charedim believe the Gedolim to be infallible. But Rabbi Shafran only accepts the fallibility of Gedolim in abstract theory. In practice, he maintains that one may never actually say that they made a mistake. Even here, when the Gedolim themselves backtracked, he won't concede that they were wrong!

After making the false claim that charedim "really believe" that yeshivos protect from coronavirus and maintain the world, Rabbi Shafran proceeds to make another claim about what charedim "really believe": "Yes, we sincerely believe that Torah study protects Jews no less than army service."

Um, no, charedim don't sincerely believe that at all. Again, some may believe that they believe it, but nobody actually believes it. This was demonstrated most clearly during one of Gaza wars, when a charedi yeshivah from Ashdod relocated to Beit Shemesh and announced that they would be providing a spiritually-based "iron dome" for Beit Shemesh. Of course, this raised the obvious question of why they didn't stay and provide it in Ashdod, where it was actually needed! No charedi yeshivos went to provide protection for the South - because they don't actually believe that Torah protects even them, let alone others. That's why the Torah Town of Kiryat Sefer, over the Green Line, has the exact same security systems as every other moshav. They will fabricate all kinds of creative ideas about the interplay between hishtadlus and Torah's protection, but the bottom line is that they don't actually believe that it protects in any kind of meaningful, practical sense.

I've actually written to Rabbi Shafran about this. I pointed out that since he is the mouthpiece of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, who are experts on such things, he should provide a long-needed service for both the charedi and non-charedi communities, and ask them to provide an elaboration on their view of exactly the parameters of how "Torah protects no less than army service." After all, if it's such a powerful, real-world operational force, with enormous practical ramifications of being (allegedly) the real reason why charedim don't serve in the IDF, surely they should be spelling out what it means exactly.

Some of the parameters that they should clarify are as follows: To what extent is it geographically related - traditional sources indicate that it applies primarily to the city where the Torah study takes place, so what are the ramifications for where the yeshivos should be located? Does the protective effect of Torah even apply when the Torah student is not studying - does it apply during the night, and during vacation? Does this protection apply under all circumstances? (Responsa Radvaz 2:752 greatly restricts the extent of the Gemara's ruling about Torah scholars being exempt from contributing towards security, including stating that it does not apply in cases where the rabbis consider themselves in need of protection). Is the intent of the person studying Torah relevant - do you have to mention for whom you "have in mind"?

The IDF can give precise answers as to the parameters of the effectiveness of their forces. If you are claiming that Torah study is of equal or greater effectiveness, you have an obligation to do the same. (See my post "Parameters, Please!" for an elaboration of these issues.)

Just as the real reason for the coronavirus delay had nothing to do with Torah protecting, so too the real reason why charedim don't serve in the IDF is nothing to do with Torah protecting. It's because they fear the harm that it would do to their way of life. That's an understandable fear, although of course it must be accompanied with an acknowledgment that if the price is too high for them to pay, they should pay it in other ways.

But it doesn't help anyone when spokesmen for charedi society, who claim to be enlightening people about what charedim "really believe," do nothing of the sort.

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Wednesday, April 29, 2020

On Celebrating Independence

A left-wing Zionist immigrant asked this week: "How do we celebrate independence at the cost of someone else’s freedom?"

I answered that question with a question: "How do we celebrate winning wars, when it comes at the cost of other people losing them?"

It's a choice between celebrating independence and mourning a massacre. I'll take the former.

UPDATE: Someone commented, Does the world really celebrate winning wars? My answer:

Times Square V-E Day Celebration NYC 1945 WWII Photo Print for Sale 

Note: My point is not that Israel Independence Day is about celebrating the victory of the War of Independence (it isn't). My point is that such celebrations are about matters of very real importance to our survival as a nation.

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Sunday, April 26, 2020

On Respecting the Charedi Gedolim

In my previous post, I responded to Rabbi Avi Shafran's claim that I should have accepted the Gedolim's ban on my books. Following my response, I received an email from a prominent person involved with Agudath Israel saying that I "missed the point" of the article, which was that I should have "respected" the Gedolim. I replied as follows:

What is "disrespect"? Issuing personal insults? In my defense against the ban, I was perfectly respectful. The only incidences of such disrespect occurred from the other side - Rabbi Reuven Schmelzer (the Gedolim's "man on the ground") writing to them that I am an "animal" and a "rasha," Rav Moshe Shapiro saying that Rav Hirsch is "not from our Beis HaMidrash" and that his approach can therefore be deemed heretical, Rav Shlomo Miller comparing me to the wicked son of the haggadah and putting me in the category of child abusers, Rav Mattisyahu Salomon's insults of me and my rabbonim at the Siyum HaShas as being "midgets" that are desecrating the emunah for which the Shoah victims died, Rav Aharon Shechter's insults from the pulpit in Teaneck of people who try to grapple with resolving conflicts between Breishis and science, Rabbi Moshe Meiselman issuing slanderous fabrications about my being thrown out of yeshivah, etc., etc.

Unless, by disrespect, you mean the very act of arguing against their positions and disputing their claims to have authority. In other words, you are claiming that I was obligated to meekly accept their condemnation of my approach as being heretical and withdraw my books from publication, and I was not entitled to defend my work and my right to continue publishing it. In which case, my previous post was exactly on point.

Perhaps you'd like to clarify what exactly you mean by "respect." Respect the ban, or respect the Gedolim - and if the latter, respect them as what? Respect them as experts on Talmud (indeed, and I never did otherwise), or as experts on science (surely not)? Respect them as experts on rabbinic perspectives on science? Surely not - they were entirely unfamiliar with the history of rabbinic discussion on these topics and presumed that my sources were forgeries. Respect them as my leaders? But they're not; even though I was charedi back then, my own rabbonim insisted that I defend my works and that the Gedolim are not my leaders. Respect them as paragons of wisdom and professionalism in their leadership responsibilities? Surely not - most of them didn't even read my books, let alone speak with me or my rabbonim, and relied entirely on the most scurrilous zealots for their information about both the content of my books and their effects, and/or issued opinions on matters that were far beyond their areas of expertise, and/or confused their own personal theological approach with being the universal unequivocal approach of traditional Judaism, and issued their supposed wise and learned decision in the form of a hysterical condemnation and ban rather than a reasoned, evidence-based set of arguments. The widespread disrespect that resulted was entirely predictable and entirely on their own shoulders.

And where is their, and your, respect for the rabbonim who actually read my books and actually understand these topics and approved my work and urged me not to back down? Aren't they worthy of respect? And what about the Rambam, Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam, Rav Hirsch, Rav Herzog, and many others whom the Gedolim deemed as presenting approaches that fundamentally pervert Judaism - are they not worthy of respect?

(And for that matter, isn't the modern scientific enterprise, currently saving thousands of our brethren from coronavirus, and for which demonstrating the existence of an age of dinosaurs and the non-existence of spontaneous generation is among the most basic of its achievements, also important to respect? We have seen the lethal consequences of charedim failing to respect the modern scientific enterprise.)

And if you're talking about respect for the general leadership of the chareidi Gedolim, well, has that really been worthy of respect? Whether its leading the chareidi community (and eventually all Israel) to economic ruin by prohibiting secular education and discouraging working for a living, or leading public protests against sharing any responsibility for militarily defending Israel, or not stepping up and implementing responsible leadership regarding child abuse, vaccinations, and coronavirus, or supporting known scoundrels such as Yona Metzger, Leib Tropper, Eliezer Berland, and Elior Chen, or practicing a system of authority which has zero transparency, professionalism, or accountability, the charedi Gedolim have failed to earn respect.

Rabbi Shafran claims that those rated as Gedolei Torah, although theoretically fallible, in practice may never actually even be disputed, let alone criticized. But it's not up to me, or anyone else, to grant respect where it is not earned. Or, to borrow Chazal's phraseology: "Where there is desecration of God's Name, one does not apportion respect to a Rav."

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Friday, April 24, 2020

"Torah Leadership" Is Not What You Think

This week I was privileged to be mentioned, though unfortunately not by name, in the Forward. The article was written by Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs and spokesman for Agudath Israel of America. Rabbi Shafran describes how many years ago, he got into trouble with the Novominsker Rebbe and others for an article that he published in the Jewish Observer about Moses Mendelssohn, which wasn't derogatory enough about him. Rabbi Shafran proudly describes how he respected the Gedolim's critique:
I could have taken the reproach as a personal insult. Another Orthodox writer, when things he wrote were criticized by some rabbinic leaders, did just that, responding with antipathy toward his critics and letting a thin skin prevent him from thereafter contributing his talents to the mainstream Orthodox world.

But I knew something important that the writer apparently wasn’t ready to consider. We might think that great men are mistaken but not only can we be wrong, even if we’re convinced that we’re right, those luminaries are still no less great, no less worthy of our veneration.

Judaism has no equivalent to the Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility. There is an entire tractate of the Talmud, Horiut, predicated on the assumption that even members of the ancient Sanhedrin were capable of erring, even in halachic matters.

But it is nonetheless a principle of Jewish thought that those most imbued with Torah-knowledge and who have internalized a large degree of the perfection of values and refinement of character that the Torah idealizes are thereby rendered most qualified to offer an authentic Jewish perspective on matters of import to Jews. Expert doctors, too, even if they are fallible, as they must be, are still the most qualified people to offer medical advice.

Torah leaders, like parents may seem to children, might seem unreasonable at times. But, just as parents always remain parents, Torah leaders remain Torah leaders.
Tragically, Rabbi Shafran is making several mistakes. I'm not going into a detailed explanation of why I myself had no reason to listen to the Torah leaders who banned my books, insisting that there was no age of dinosaurs and that the Talmud was correct in referring to spontaneous generation - I've already written a list of reasons on this page as to why I didn't need to listen to them. (In brief: They didn't understand modern science, they didn't know about rabbinic scholarship on these issues, they didn't know what my books actually said, they didn't know what the purpose of the books was, they were misinformed about the effects of the books, and they were ignorant of, or rejected, the entire rationalist school of thought.) Instead, I'd like to make more general points that are more broadly applicable.

First, "Torah" is simply too vague a term. There is Tanach and Talmud and Halachah and Kabbalah and Machshavah and Theology. Those who are renowned as expert Talmudists are often not expert theologians. There are plenty of matters of import to Jews that Talmudists and Halachists simply know very little about.

Second, although devout adherents of modern mystical doctrines of Daas Torah believe that single-minded dedication to Torah gives one divine insight into areas outside of Torah, classical Judaism maintains that being secluded from the world gives one less expertise, not more. Adherents of modern mystical Daas Torah believe that Rav Chaim Kanievsky, entirely isolated in his Bnei Brak apartment, is all the more qualified to provide leadership on communal issues - the rest of us strongly disagree.

Third, two people can study exactly the same sources and have diametrically opposed approaches to them, because they have completely different worldviews. Rambam believed in naturalizing miracles - others see that as heretical. There is no reason why the leadership of a "great Torah authority" who is entirely locked into a particular worldview should be accepted by someone with an entirely different worldview. There is no comparison to "expert doctors"; it's more like saying that an average, scientifically-educated Western person should submit to an "expert healer" in China. It's a completely different system of thought. 

Fourth, it is simply not the case that a great Torah sage is a great leader. Leadership is much more complicated than that. I've quoted Rav Eliezer Melamed on this many times before, but it is worth quoting him again: "Gadlut beTorah necessitates an all-embracing, fully accountable handling of serious issues facing the generation, including: the attitude towards Am Yisrael in all its diversity and various levels – both religious, and non-religious; the attitude towards mitzvoth of yishuv haaretz (settling the Land) and the on-going war which has surrounded it for over a century; the attitude towards science and work, and the contemporary social and economic questions."

Fifth, expertise in Torah does not even necessarily make one wise. The Sages themselves pointed out that one can be a Torah scholar (by their standards!) and yet lack da'at - and they described such a person as being worse than a putrid carcass! On this point, it is crucial to read Rav Aharon Lichtenstein's essay, "If There Is No “Da’at,” How Can We Have Leadership?".

Sixth, the "the perfection of values and refinement of character that the Torah idealizes" that Rabbi Shafran idealizes is somewhat of a pipe-dream. No matter how selfless and kind a person is, people have biases, as well as limitations on understanding new concerns. None other than Chaim Dovid Zweibel, Executive Vice-President of Agudath Israel of America, conceded that the Council of Torah Sages of Agudath Israel of America dropped the ball on dealing with abuse and molestation in yeshivos, and that the issue only started to be taken seriously after bloggers kept pushing it.

As further examples of the above points, one could point to how most of Rabbi Shafran's revered "Torah leaders" supported Leib Tropper's takeover of conversions worldwide, even though it was apparent to many people (including myself) that this would be a terrible mistake - as they were later forced to admit. And the Council of Torah Sages of Agudath Israel of America - the body for which Rabbi Shafran is a spokesman - could not even issue guidance for people to vaccinate their children, since three of the members of the Council are themselves anti-vaxxers!

Finally, while Rabbi Shafran would like to believe that the leaders of Agudas Yisroel are the leaders of Klal Yisroel, that's simply not the case. His so-called "Torah leaders" are not the leaders of all Torah-observant Jews. They are not the leaders of Religious Zionism or Modern Orthodoxy or countless Chassidic sects. Even many "black-hat" communities also have a completely different model of rabbinic authority, which empowers rabbis on a local level, rather than claiming that there are a few "Gedolim" which everyone has to follow.

So, Rabbi Shafran, you are welcome - perhaps even obligated - to follow the "Gedolei Torah" that you select as your leaders, whether they are young-earthers or anti-vaxxers. But the rest of us "Torah Jews" are under no obligation whatsoever to respect their leadership. Fortunately, we have plenty of wonderful rabbinic leaders of our own.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Isn't It Lashon Hara? Do I Have Noble Motives? And What Do I Hope To Accomplish?

In the last few days there have been an increasing number of criticisms of my posts which criticize (or, as they call it, "bash") various aspects of charedi society. "It's lashon hara!" "You have impure motives - you just hate charedim, because your books were banned!" "You're just preaching to the choir, what can your blog accomplish?!" I've addressed these criticisms in several comments over the years, but I thought it would be useful to have a single post with a thorough response.

"It's Lashon Hara - it's forbidden!"


No, it isn't.

Relating negative facts about others is permitted when it is beneficial. It is extraordinary that the works of the Chafetz Chaim, intended to make the world a better place, have often been used to make the world a worse place. Sometimes it is people not giving over harmful information about a shidduch, sometimes it is people not reporting dangerous behavior in a rabbi, sometimes it is people trying to quell frank  and important discussion about social policies. The Torah's principles of speech are supposed to improve society. 

(See too this post: "When Lashon Hara Is A Mitzvah")

"You have impure motives - you just hate charedim, because your books were banned!" 


The notorious ban on my books was indeed a deeply upsetting experience for myself and my family, more so than you can imagine. I wouldn't wish such a thing on anyone (well, maybe on a few people). But it also had some tremendous long-term benefits for me, which means that I am very grateful that it happened. And it was an immensely educational experience, and one that motivated me to learn about, and teach about, the rationalist-mystic divide, along with both the correct approach to rabbinic authority and its abuses. I don't think that's a bad thing. As it happens, I have a lot of sympathy for the ban on my books, if not for its execution, and I wrote what is probably the best defense of my opponents.

A much bigger impact on my feelings towards charedi society has been made by living in Ramat Beit Shemesh for twenty years, at the forefront of the clash between charedi and non-charedi elements of society, and seeing first-hand the effects of the problems. You don't have to have had your books banned in order to feel strongly about the problems of charedi society - plenty of other people both outside and inside charedi society feel the same way. Even charedi ambassador Jonathan Rosenblum has written about how charedi society is unsustainable and threatens the rest of Israel.

But, for argument's sake, let's say that I have impure motives. So what? What matters is the truth and value of what I write, not my motivations for writing it.

"You're just preaching to the choir, what can your blog accomplish?!"

This blog reaches a wider range of people than is commonly thought, and has effects in all kinds of ways.

First of all, there are people with strong charedi ideology who read my blog because they despise it and just want to know what the "enemy" is saying. Obviously nothing that I write will immediately change their minds. But it does plant seeds, which can sprout later. Some of my closest ideological friends are rabbis who used to despise and denounce me as a heretic, before they gradually came to terms with the fact that what I write is actually true. (I don't hold any hard feelings against them - the Nosson Slifkin of twenty-five years ago would also have despised this blog, because it would have made him feel so uncomfortable.)

Second, there are plenty of people in charedi society who read my blog and like it! They agree that there are problems which need to be exposed and addressed.

Third, even people who are not part of charedi society are connected to it in all kinds of ways. And there is enormous influence from charedi rabbis and educators in non-charedi circles and institutions. It's important for people outside of charedi ideology to understand the reality of it, and its problems, rather than the ideological distortions and fake picture of charedi society presented by its representatives and media outlets. Whether it's a matter of selecting educational institutions for your children, choosing which causes to support, or deciding how to evaluate rabbinic guidance, it's crucial to be informed of the issues.

Over the years, many people have written to tell me about how this blog has helped them in various ways. If you're one of the people who have benefited, or who otherwise see a benefit, please write a comment describing this. (And it would be wonderful if you could show your appreciation by supporting the Biblical Museum of Natural History, which educates tens of thousands of people - including the most insular charedim - about the relationship between Judaism and the natural world, in an entirely non-controversial, positive and universally-appreciated way! Click here to donate.)

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Monday, April 20, 2020

The Corona-Kollel Connection

As we have seen, the charedi community unfortunately was initially slack in taking heed of warnings about coronavirus. Rav Chaim Kanievsky and others made tragically mistaken claims of "Torah will protect us." But once reality hit their communities, and hundreds of fine frum Jews in Israel, the UK and the US started to fall very sick and die, they started to take things much more seriously.

Notably, Rav Gershon Edelstein stated that even though the government now permits outside minyanim (under various restrictions), people should not attend them unless they can be certain that the restrictions will be adhered to. He strongly stressed the need to listen to what doctors are saying. Rav Yitzchak Berkovits sent out a letter in which he stated that nobody has the right to claim a reliance on bitachon at the expense of others. The charedi rabbi with whom I had a lengthy argument agreed that once the doctors have made things clear, "One may not rely on miracles." His point was not that it would take a miracle in order to survive this period (thankfully things are not as bad as that), but that once the medical establishment has described the reality, one must respect that, and not presume to rely upon unnatural assistance. And even Rav Chaim Kanievsky has changed from using "Torah protects" as an operational factor to merely paying lip service to it.

The crucial question is: Will the larger lesson be learned?

Meaning: Will the charedi community learn that in general, one must respect the laws of reality, and certainly not rely upon miracles?

Here is a deeply disturbing letter that was forwarded to me a few months ago. It was sent out by an alumnus of a certain yeshivah to other alumni. (I have edited it for clarity and to obscure the identity of the writer). In the first part of the letter, the writer explains the situation in which he finds himself:
We are undeserving of the great chessed that Hashem has done for us to stand here today, being presented with the mitzvah off marrying our daughter to a Ben Torah. Our Gedolim today instruct yungerleit that obligating yourself in the financial commitment necessary to enable the couple to purchase an apartment is what needs to be done. "ועשית ככל אשר יורוך And you shall do according to whatever they instruct." I am not any smarter than anyone else and I too don’t understand the Israel shidduch market obligating parents to purchase apartments for their children.
I have to say that, given the circumstances, I understand the Israel shidduch market completely. Charedi kollel couples in Israel have no prospects to ever be able to earn enough money to buy their own home. The only way for them to ever own their own home is to make the marriage conditional on the parents providing it.

Okay, so the Gedolim say that you have to provide the funds to purchase an apartment for the young couple. What do they say about where these funds will come from? The letter continues (and I have highlight part of it in bold):
The parents need to commit to make a chassunah and purchase an apartment for their children as their hishtadlus to get them married. Rav Chaim Kanievsky instructs parents to commit and the rest will be maaseh nissim, a miraculous act. Rav Gershon Edelstein instructs parents to do the same. He tells them to commit to give up to 700,000 shekel for their daughter. I am good friends with one of the grandsons of Rav Aharon Leib Steinman, who told me that his grandfather advised the same.
That's the instruction?! That's how you avoid poverty and make a marriage commitment to another party? Rely on a miracle?!

Let's leave aside the fact that this runs exactly contrary to Chazal, who said that in a situation of clear risks, one may not rely on miracles. After all, the Gedolim are in any case going against numerous other statements of Chazal, regarding the importance of work, and of raising one's children to be able to provide for themselves. Let's just talk about basic common sense. How on earth can you tell people to commit to giving three-quarters of a million shekels and to trust that these funds will miraculously appear?

Since you can't rely on miracles in the real world, people are forced to reaching out to everyone they know, to beg for money and to ask them to beg others for money. The letter continues:
ברוב בושה וכלימה I approach you all my dear friends once again, to ask for your help to assist us in getting through and completing this מצוה של הכנסת חתן וכלה. The biggest help would be to ask you all to daven for Hashem to have רחמי שמים to send us the funds needed to fulfill our financial obligation. I would be very appreciative to anyone who could say תהילים קפיטל כג for us to come up with the outstanding 483,000 shekel. If you could reach out to others and ask them to direct some of their מעות מעשר in our direction that would enable us to expand our close knit circle and be מזכה them with this מצוה as well. Finally, if it weren’t too much of a חוצפה ועזות if anyone has some extra מעשר כספים that can be directed to help us meet our financial obligation for this couple, we would be forever grateful to you for that.
It's just tragic. These people are in a hopeless situation. They followed the Gedolim to raise a family on a kollel check, they followed the Gedolim to raise their children without the skills or desire to earn a living, and now they are following the Gedolim to make a massive financial commitment that they haven't got a hope of being able to fulfill.

And this isn't even starting with the question of how, if this couple have to beg others to beg others to help them, will their children manage when it's time to marry off their own children? It's a problem that gets exponentially worse. At least hopefully the word "exponentially" is now a word that many more people understand.

Some dear friends of mine asked me why, over the last few weeks, I was criticizing certain Gedolim for their negligent approach to coronavirus. They said that this is not the time for it - this is a time for magnanimity and achdus.

But the point is that coronavirus presents the opportunity to get the charedi community to wake up. Just as you have to respect reality with regard to coronavirus, you equally have to respect reality with regard to working for a living. And you can't abscond your responsibilities by saying "But the Gedolim told me otherwise!" When it comes down to it, the Gedolim are not able to save you from coronavirus and likewise they won't be able to save you from crushing debt and poverty.

For all our sakes, let's hope that coronavirus leads people to wake up. You have to work with reality. And reality requires hishtadlus.

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Friday, April 17, 2020

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

The big news in the charedi community today is a statement from Rav Chaim Kanievsky, printed in the Yated Neeman:
"The Torah commanded us to look after ourselves long before they (the Zionist government) came up with their rules. But if they were to know how much Torah protects and saves, they would find a solution for us to successfully (reopen the yeshivos) without entering into danger."

(He also reiterated his position that anyone disregarding the laws about restrictions should be reported to the police, describing them as rodfim. I'm not sure how to square this with the fact that there has been a regular minyan taking place in his apartment.)

Now, first of all, it's rather ironic that he puts down the rules of the government and claims that "Torah was there first." Because, as is well known, it is precisely the Torah leadership of Rav Chaim Kanievsky that was late to the game and which closed the yeshivos and schools several crucial days after everything else in the country was already closed.

Regarding finding a solution, it is true that there is a lot to be said regarding the inconsistency of how it is legal in Israel to gather for a protest, but not for prayer. And indeed, this was an argument submitted in a government discussion yesterday, with the result that prayer in open spaces with distancing will probably be soon permitted.

(I should add at this point that some of the non-charedi leadership has also been severely disappointing. In particular, President Rivlin's spending the first day of his chag with his children, at a time when many elderly people were told to be alone, was utterly disgraceful. However, he did apologize and express deep regret for his mistake, which virtually never happens with a charedi Gadol.)

Still, while one can certainly marshal a powerful argument for opening schools, shuls and yeshivos based on the primacy of Torah study in Judaism, that is not the argument that Rav Chaim presents. Instead, he uses the argument that Torah will protect against coronavirus.

Needless to say, this is the exact same argument that he used to stop the closure of the yeshivos and shuls to begin with. Which is in part the reason why Bnei Brak has by far the highest rate of infection in Israel. And the alleged "protective value" of Torah has not exactly been impressive in the US or UK, where countless Torah scholars have tragically died.

I'm even more bothered by the phraseology of Rav Chaim's statement. "If they were to know how much Torah protects and saves..." Well, how much does Torah protect and save? I don't even need an exact answer - just something approximate will suffice, as long as it has actual practical significance. Doctors can give statistics as to the efficacy of various remedies, the army can describe the efficacy of various forms of defense, so why can't anyone describe the efficacy of the protective power of Torah? Of course, no charedi rabbi will ever, ever try to give an actual meaningful answer to that question.

The idea of "Torah protecting" has absolutely zero significance in a practical sense. (As for how to understand classical sources on this topic, see my posts "Torah Against Terror?" and "Practically Speaking, Torah Does Not Protect.") When charedi apologists try to defend this concept, they end up twisting themselves into pretzels.

In a previous post, I mentioned a rabbi with whom I had an argument about Torah supposedly protecting from coronavirus. The argument has been steadily ongoing, as I try to show him the inconsistency of his position. This rabbi insists that Torah does indeed protect, but also maintains that one is halachically required to listen to doctors, and that if the doctors say that it is dangerous to continue shuls and yeshivos, ignoring them would be a prohibition of ain somchin al ha-nes, one may not rely on miracles. Accordingly, he said that it was indeed correct to listen to the doctors to close the shuls and yeshivos - but up until that point Torah was indeed protecting, and it was therefore a pity that we had to lose that protective power.

I pointed out that according to his logic, why on earth should one listen to doctors? After all, they are basing their guidance on the situation in the general population, and are not taking into account the supposed protective powers of Torah! Or to put it another way - the doctors don't only say that's bad for people to get together now - they say that it was retroactively always bad, and that what was done in the past led to the present situation. If he believes that they are right about what we should do now, then why are they wrong in what they believe about the cause? And there are all kinds of other questions to ask, which is that since every pandemic starts off as a regular contagious disease like the annual flu, at which point does gathering to study Torah suddenly stop protecting significantly and become harmful?

A more rationalist explanation of the concept of the Torah's protection can be found in the commentary of Meiri (to Sotah 21a). He explains: “Torah protects the world – i.e., that the Torah scholar influences others, and his wisdom enables society to endure.” In his view, the meaning of the statement that "Torah protects" is simply that Torah scholars, with their wisdom, influence society for the better, thereby enabling it to thrive.

Alas, it would seem that not every person known as a Torah scholar influences society in this way. But that leads in turn to the question of "Who Is A Gadol?", which has been forcefully answered by Rav Eliezer Melamed:
"Gadlut beTorah necessitates an all-embracing, fully accountable handling of serious issues facing the generation, including: the attitude towards Am Yisrael in all its diversity and various levels – both religious, and non-religious; the attitude towards mitzvoth of yishuv haaretz (settling the Land) and the on-going war which has surrounded it for over a century; the attitude towards science and work, and the contemporary social and economic questions."
It's sometimes pretty clear where such gadlut can, and cannot, be found.

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The yeshivos might be closed, but we are still teaching Torah live online from the Biblical Museum of Natural History! See our schedule at

The Best Thing To Do During Lockdown

Dear Readers, if you've benefited at all from this website, please can you do a favor both for me and for people that you know: Tell them about the best thing that they can do during lockdown!

I'm talking, of course, about our live online tours at the new Biblical Museum of Natural History. We have seven different in-depth tours of the various halls, as well as a basic "zoom-through" tour for younger audiences with short attention spans. It's a uniquely engaging Torah educational session in which you're not just staring at someone speaking, but you get to encounter all kinds of extraordinary creatures, both dead and alive!

The link for the post-Pesach weekly schedule of public tours is Please share this link with friends, family, community, and communal institutions such as shuls and schools which might like to book their own tour. You'll be doing us a favor, and you'll be doing them a favor!

Just copy-and-paste this paragraph into an email or WhatsApp:

Hi, you might be interested to know about the live online tours of the new Biblical Museum of Natural History. It's a unique way to learn a lot of Torah while simultaneously enjoying an exciting encounter with the animal kingdom. Check it out at!

Thank you, and Shabbat Shalom!

Monday, April 13, 2020

Daas Torah on How to Avoid Getting Coronavirus

I had held off on writing about this topic for a few days. But now I think that I had made a mistake about Rav Chaim Kanievsky.

The economic situation of charedi society, always in bad shape because of the low rate of employment, has gotten much worse with coronavirus. In an effort to raise larger donations, the Vaad HaRabbonim has launched a new campaign. They are enticing people to donate substantial sums with an incredible lure: A promise from the Sar HaTorah, Rav Chaim Kanievsky, that they will not get sick from coronavirus! As the ad says, "In a short video clip, after being asked what donors to Vaad HaRabbanim’s cholim fund should merit in return, Rav Chaim answers succinctly: 'He will not be sick!' A straightforward answer in a time of uncertainty."

Not to be outdone, the Kupat HaIr of Bnei Brak launched a campaign that was even bolder. They provided a letter by Rav Chaim's son, Rav Yitzchak Shaul Kanievsky, attesting to his father saying that you and your family can be saved from coronavirus, provided that you donate a "substantial sum" to Kupat HaIr, which they defined as three thousand shekels. The donation will get you a "protection contract," signed by Rav Chaim, to be hung on your wall.

Now, I originally saw these as simply further examples of charities manipulating a Gadol B'Torah in order to raise money. Obviously Rav Chaim had not meant that donors will not contract coronavirus; what he meant was to express a wish/hope/blessing that they should not contract coronavirus.

But now I think I may have been wrong.

In a fascinating and deeply disturbing interview with Rav Yitzchak Shaul Kanievsky, Kikar Shabbos posed the natural question, of whether Rav Chaim can actually guarantee that someone will not contract coronavirus. Rav Yitzchak explains his father's position in detail, and is insistent that yes, his father meant that donors will not contract coronavirus, "just as on Rosh Hashanah we all cry out 'And repentance, and prayer and charity shall remove the evil decree' - it is not written 'perhaps', it is not written 'he will merit', there are no conditions mentioned at all, rather 'shall remove', explicitly."

So how does Rav Yitzchak translate this absolute guarantee into those who donate to Kupat HaIr? He first explains that those who are Divinely decreed to contract coronavirus will find themselves divinely prevented from being able to donate to Kupat HaIr - as that would prevent the Divine decree from being imposed:
"Hakadosh Baruch Hu runs the world and knows what to put in the heart of each and every person, and as an example, if it has been decreed that a person should become sick, and Hakadosh Baruch Hu does not desire him to possess the merit of "one measure corresponding to another", Hakadosh Baruch Hu sets up blockages for him so that he will not donate to this fund for all sorts of reasons, either he forgets or he doesn't understand or (Hashem) causes that it will not be possible for him to do so etc."
So, if you're lucky enough to be spared the Divine prevention from being able to donate, you'd better take advantage! That means that God has decided that you can merit protection.

But Kikar does not leave it at that. They ask that there are those called "rationalists" who find Rav Chaim's guarantee difficult to accept. After all, there are so many people in Bnei Brak who donate to Kupat HaIr. Surely it should be possible to shut down the hospitals and cemetries!

Rav Yitzchak first responds by expressing his dislike of the term "rationalists":
"I wouldn't call them "rationalists", rather these are people to whom a stain of heresy and enlightenment has become attached. This was the way of the maskilim in every locale, to mock and render ridiculous the words of our rabbis, the Gedolei haDor, may their merit protect us."
Did you get that? If you question this promise, you're an apikores. But the interviewer still presses the point and asks how there can be such a promise. So Rav Yitzchak answers as follows:
"My father, master and teacher shlita, frequently points to the explicit words of the Mishnah Berurah 158:38 regarding the saying of Chazal that “one who is careful about netilat yadayim with an abundance of water, is given handfuls of goodness”, regarding which the Mishnah Berurah writes “and one who is careful about this and does not become wealthy, it is because his deeds prevent this”. And so it is regarding ma'aser.
"And my father, master and teacher shlita regularly says (apparently in the name of the Chazon Ish and perhaps this is the intent of the aforementioned Mishnah Berurah), that sometimes a person deserves wealth as a result of being particular about ma’aser etc., and subsequently he deserves to be punished, and if he would not have the promise and the merit for wealth he would have received a different punishment, and now he is punished by not receiving the promised wealth. So he did, in some sense, receive the wealth, but afterwards he was punished and it was taken away. If he would not have had the merit for wealth, his not being wealthy would not be considered a punishment, and he would receive another punishment, and only because he deserves wealth is the lack of wealth considered a punishment.
"And so too can be said regarding the words of my father, master and teacher shlita, when a person has a merit through which, measure for measure, he will not become sick. If afterwards perhaps he deserves a punishment, he would become ill, Heaven forfend, if he did not have the merit that there should be no ill people in his home, and there would only be the punishment of the sickness itself. Now that there is the greater punishment in (also) losing the merit that there should be no ill people, and thus in the calculus of punishments he has gained (by one sickness fulfilling two punishments). My uncle Maran HaGaon R. Yitzchak Zilberstein shlita has already said that there are those who lose the merit afterwards, like the aforementioned Mishnah Berurah."
Here we have a contrived explanation as to how although your donation has totally earned your protection from coronavirus, as promised, you nevertheless can still receive coronavirus due to other sins that you have committed. But, look on the bright side - by also losing the merit for your donation, you thereby also received punishment for other sins, and thus without coronavirus and your donation, you would otherwise have received even more punishments! (Confused? You're not the only one. No wonder that Rav Chaim is still having daily minyanim in his home.)

And thus, says Rav Yitzchak, it's totally accurate for Rav Chaim to guarantee that donating to Kupat HaIr will save you from coronavirus. Because it will! Unless you have a sin. In which case you're still better off having a merit that can be traded against that sin's punishment.

So really, giving to Kupat HaIr is no different than having any other merit. And everyone has sins. And so giving to Kupat HaIr is actually no protection whatsoever against coronavirus. Except that it's heretical to say that! Rav Chaim said it is guaranteed to save you!

This is, of course, the perfect recipe for taking advantage of people with false promises. In fact, it's eerily like the description of the false prophets who brought about the corruption of the Jewish People and the Destruction of the Temple. They would make prophesies to people, and when the prophesies did not come true, they would contrive an explanation to account for it. There are countless people who are taken advantage of by such deceptions. And, of course, on a national level, it's essentially the same as the deception that the Torah study of charedi yeshivos (and nobody else!) brings critical protection from military threats.

It doesn't really make a difference if Rav Yitzchak is accurately reporting his father's position. Rav Yitzchak himself, as the son of Rav Chaim, is certainly part of the Daas Torah system, the system that is trumpeted as the Ultimate Authority by Mishpacha and Ami and Agudas Yisrael and ArtScroll. And here we have the system preying upon people's fear of corona to offer false promises of safety, with the threat of stigmatization and delegitimization if anyone questions these promises - despite the fact that the "saints" offering these promises are the very people whose badly mistaken promises caused the broad spread of coronavirus in the first place! אלה אלהיך ישראל.

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Saturday, April 11, 2020

A Maimonidean View of Why Coronavirus Happened

In my earlier post, "Why Did God Send The Coronavirus?", I pointed to Rambam's view (as written in his letter to the Jews of Marseilles), that the Destruction of the Temple happened because the Jewish People were focused on bad theology rather than on military preparations. I noted that a similar approach could be taken to the coronavirus pandemic. It's the consequence of global society not placing sufficient emphasis on medical preparations.

Now, a number of people raised an objection to this from Rambam's words in the Mishneh Torah. There, he writes as follows:
"It is a positive mitzvah of the Torah to cry out and to blow the trumpets whenever any danger afflicts a Jewish community... This is part of the procedure of repentance, for when difficulties occur and people come to pray, they realize that these happenings befell them because of their sins... and this will cause the troubles to be removed. However, if they do not pray, but instead say, 'Such is the way of the world...' - this is a cruel approach, that causes people to maintain their evil ways, and will bring further suffering." (Hilchos Taanis 1:1-3)
In response, I would like to point out that while there could well be differences in approach between the Mishneh Torah and Rambam's other writings, in this case there is no conflict between what Rambam writes in Hilchos Taanis and what he wrote to the Jews of Marseilles. As Rambam says, when tragedies happen, we must not just brush them off, saying "that's just how things are". Rather, we have to engage in soul-searching and introspection as to how we might have been responsible for it. With the Destruction of the Temple, Rambam does precisely this, and says that there was a neglect of military preparedness caused by bad theology.

With coronavirus, I proposed the similar wrongdoing of a neglect of medical preparedness. Just because it doesn't sound like a frum sin, like a lack of tzniyus or lashon hara, does not mean that it isn't a sin! And if you want it presented in frum terms: Just as there is a mitzvah of maakeh, to make a safety fence around a balcony, so too we are obligated as a society to make sure that we have the necessary precautions and medical equipment to deal with a pandemic. To the extent that countries and societies failed to do so, they suffered the consequences (and countries which were better prepared, such as South Korea, suffered less).

Imagine if someone falls off their balcony because they didn't install a proper fence. Do we need to think of what Lashon Hara they said to deserve such a fate?! It's not "attributing it to mikreh" to say that lack of preparedness is a cause; lack of preparedness is a serious shortcoming!

Some still asked that according to this, why does Rambam call for fasting and prayer? The answer is that according to Rambam, fasting and praying is what helps people (A) be human beings, feeling connected to the community and so on, and (B) contemplate where they went wrong.

All this is doubtless somewhat jarring to people who are not well grounded in Maimonidean theology. One must bear in mind that in Rambam's view, God does not spontaneously choose rewards and punishments for our actions; rather, He has set up the world such that correct actions generally lead to beneficial consequences, and vice-versa. I strongly recommend reading Menachem Kellner's essay on Rambam's concept of reward and punishment, which can be downloaded at this link.

There's another point to be made with regard to those who want there to be a more "spiritual" or "frum" message/reason in God sending coronavirus. What would such a message be? Sending something in order to send a message only works if such a message is clearly there. (It reminds me of those who creatively reinterpret the pesukim of Bereishis to match modern science, in ways that nobody has ever translated the pesukim before, and then claim that Bereishis is "teaching" modern science!)

What messages did God send us with coronavirus - that He doesn't want us to go to shul? Every shocking event can help us pause and engage in introspection, and there may be plenty of valuable lessons that we can choose to learn in this crisis, but there is only one absolutely clear and unambiguous message, which is that society needs to take the dangers of pandemics more seriously.

Incredibly, there are some people whose cognitive dissonance prevents them from seeing even that which is clearly true. On Friday, I had a long back-and-forth with one of the many charedi rabbanim who read this website. He insisted that coronavirus is a testimony to the amazing protective powers of the prayer and Torah of Rav Chaim Kanievsky and others, since the mortality rate in Bnei Brak has been so low, despite the crowded conditions! And he said that it was a pity that they stopped the shuls and yeshivos in America so early, because they would have been better protected had they continued.

I responded to him by pointing out some facts. Like that the low mortality rate is true in all of Israel, and it's because of Israel's healthcare system as a whole. And that within Israel, Bnei Brak and Jerusalem have been the worst affected. And even though very few have died so far, there are nearly two thousand sick in Bnei Brak, with new cases being diagnosed at a far greater rate than anywhere else, and the hospital there can't even receive any more patients and has to send them to other hospitals, and even those who don't die are likely to suffer considerable long-term health problems. And that the greater suffering of Bnei Brak is, to a certain degree, precisely because of the shuls and the yeshivos and the Daas Torah. And that in the US and UK, it's the "Torah" communities and rabbanim that are being the hardest hit.

But it was no use. Nothing that I said had any impact. As far as he was concerned, coronavirus merely confirms that Torah is the best hishtadlus against physical threats.

Of course, there are many people in the charedi community who would disagree with what this rabbi said. And there are some people in the charedi community who are ready to do some soul-searching - see this article for an excellent example. But as long as there are a substantial number of people in denial - and people in key positions who are in denial about the denial - there is a serious problem. The lack of concern and hishtadlus for pandemics, as well as the related lack of concern and hishtadlus for military and economic threats, will remain a danger for us all.
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A reminder: Coronavirus has not stopped the Biblical Museum of Natural History from inspiring and educating people! We've been running live online tours for the last week, and they've been fantastic! As well as a brief "Highlights" tour, we also have six in-depth tours of different halls. You can sign up for our Pesach tours at Please share the word!

Thursday, April 9, 2020

"But It's Our Minhag/ Mesorah!"

I didn't think that there was anything more to add to the Kezayis topic, but it always grows!

As you know, the arguments for a kezayis being a kezayis are overwhelming. But I've heard an interesting counterargument from some people. They do not even attempt to counter all the proofs from the Gemara, from the Rishonim, from the Acharonim. They simply say that any such proofs are irrelevant; the fact is that our minhag/ mesorah is to use a much larger shiur.

Now, I certainly accept that tradition can be a trump card (in fact, that's one reason why I personally don't wear techelet). But here's the thing: it's not a tradition, according to any reasonable definition of the term.

I am absolutely certain that for at least the vast majority of people, if not everyone, their great-grandparents and even their grandparents were not brought up to measure huge shiurim of matza. In fact, for many people zealously espousing the larger shiurim, probably even their parents don't. It's not a family tradition, and it's not even a community tradition. And as R. Hadar Margolin has documented, even renowned rabbinic authorities weren't doing it. It arose a couple of decades ago, in line with Haym Soloveitchik's seminal article "Rupture and Reconstruction" about "book-tradition" replacing actual tradition.

So when someone says that their minhag or mesorah is to use a larger shiur, in many cases what they actually mean is that identifying with a particular contemporary culture is more important to them than classical halachah or actual tradition. This is not necessarily an illegitimate argument; but one should acknowledge what is really being said.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Why Did God Send The Coronavirus?

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

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

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

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

Personally, I think that this also gets things backwards.

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

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

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

It's medical science.

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 5, 2020

The Kezayis Post

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"But It's Our Minhag/ Mesorah!" - examining a counter-argument for using the large shiurim.

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

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

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

Friday, April 3, 2020

Who Caused the Death by Daas Torah?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Check the Date...

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

The Most Unthinkable Neighbors

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

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

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

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

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

Tzedakah: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

How do you tell apart a good charity from a bad one? It can be very difficult to know who is actually honest. But the first step is to be aw...