Saturday, May 30, 2020

Frum Racism

Growing up in England, I saw much more racism against Pakistanis and other groups than I saw against blacks. But I saw racism against blacks in my frum high school, where boys would make jokes about "shvartzers." It bothered me intensely. My parents raised me to be staunchly anti-racist. My school assigned us to read "Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry," about the experiences of a black girl growing up in Mississippi in the 1930s, and it had a profound impact on me. It made me the weird kid in yet another way - not only was I the kid who was nuts about strange animals, not only was I the only kid whose family voted Labour, I was also the only kid who would never, ever use the word "shvartzer."

Nor was I quiet about my beliefs. I would get into heated arguments with my classmates about racism. But they had a trump card, backed up by one of the rebbes. They said that black people are descended from Cham (Ham), who was cursed, and therefore it was legitimate to view them as inferior.

At the time, I had no comeback to that. But when I started yeshivah gedolah, and learned how to learn, I searched for a yeshivish response - and found one. I published it in a book that I wrote 23 years ago, called Second Focus. There's a lot of material in that book which I regret. But I'm still proud of the chapter that I wrote against frum racism, which took quite some courage to write when I was at that stage of my life and in that sub-culture. Here it is:

Parashas Noach


Last week’s essay discussed kavod Elokim haster, the concept of keeping quiet about sections of Torah that may cause misunderstandings and result in a blow to the honor of Torah. Sometimes, however, it is important to bring a topic to the forefront of public attention because of serious sins that people are committing out of misunderstanding the issue. This may have to be done even if it causes pain and resentment in the process. This week’s essay discusses one such issue. At the end, there is a true and tragic story that resulted from a lack of awareness on this, which is the reason why it is necessary to raise this unpleasant point. I have tried my best to be as sensitive as possible with this extremely delicate matter.

Quite frequently during my school years I would find myself involved in an argument with my classmates over their derogatory comments about blacks. I claimed that they were being racist and cruel. They retorted that Noach’s son Cham was cursed and turned black, and they therefore deserve it. I had no reply at the time, but in the intervening years I have studied Torah sources on the matter, and following are the results of my research.

The story itself is quite complex and there are disputes in the commentaries about what exactly happened and what the punishment was. Basically, Cham and his son Cana’an jointly committed a grave sin, for which they received a curse of slavery and their skin is blackened.

To deal with the slavery issue first, the Netziv raises the question that not all descendants of Cham are slaves and not all slaves are descendants of Cham. He therefore explains that the curse was not that they should or would be slaves, but rather that those who did find themselves in that capacity would be more at ease with it, having inherited it from their ancestor. Other people, however, would have a strong drive to fight for freedom.

With regard to the skin color, one of the commentaries on the Midrash points out that the reason why Africans have black skin is that they have increased levels of melanin which protect them against the fierce sunlight of their country. However, it was Noach’s curse which brought them to live in such climates.

To sum up: all the Torah tells us is that Cham and Cana’an committed a sin, as a result of which their descendants came to live in a hot country that darkened their skin, and were hampered in their efforts to resist slavery.

Some people seem to be working with the idea that since Noach cursed Cham, it is up to us to enhance that curse. Well, like it or not, we’re all cursed in one way or another. Chava was cursed with labor pains, but we do not try to increase those for women. Nor should we try to enhance the “sweat of our brow” with which man was cursed to support himself. Nor is there any mitzvah to inflict pain upon snakes because of their curse. If G-d, or Noach, curses someone, then that’s their business, not ours.

So much for being on the defensive against racist slurs. It should be clear that if people want to be racially offensive, they cannot claim that they are doing it for Torah reasons. Now let’s take the offensive. The Gemara (Taanis 20a) relates a story which, according to the explanation of the Maharsha (who says that it was referring to a black person), is a revealing lesson in race relations.

The Gemara relates that Rabbi Eleazar was riding on his donkey one day, feeling happy and proud of himself after a successful period of study. A black man walking along greeted him, but Rabbi Elazar did not return the greeting.

“Raika!” he called out (a derogatory term which roughly means “good-for-nothing”). “Is everyone in your village as ugly as you?”

“I don’t know (if I am allowed to answer that question,)” replied the black man. “Why don’t you go and tell the Craftsman Who made me?”

Rabbi Eleazar was instantly torn with apology. “Please forgive me!” he begged.

“Not until you go and tell the Craftsman Who made me,” replied the black man. He continued home to his village, with Rabbi Eleazar following contritely behind. When he arrived at the village, he was astonished to see his fellow townsfolk greeting Rabbi Eleazar with respect.

“If he is a Rabbi,” said the black man, “then let there not be more like him in Israel!”
“Why?” asked the townsfolk. The man related what Rabbi Eleazar had said to him. They pressed upon him to forgive Rabbi Eleazar, and he consented to do so, on condition that he would not act in such a way again.

Thus ends the story. The Maharsha spells out the lesson for us to learn from it. If you see something that you consider ugly, it is not your place to mention it. Doing so is attributing a deficiency to Creation. Making derogatory comments about black people is effectively saying that G-d messed up, chas v’shalom.

The story also implies that Rabbi Eleazar’s unpleasant comment was caused by excessive feelings of pride. Bigotry stems from arrogance. Whatever has happened in Crown Heights is totally irrelevant to this. With the frequently heard but undoubtedly offensive word “shvartzer,” one might be stacking up a serious slew of sins, as we see in the following case, related by Sarah Shapiro, that took place in Jerusalem recently.

A non-Jewish black youth by the name of Matt, who grew up in America, found himself strangely attracted to Judaism. He eventually found his way to a proper conversion to true Torah Judaism, and began to study at a ba’al teshuvah yeshivah in Jerusalem. Although he found fulfillment in his new way of life, he was experiencing a distressing problem. He would constantly be the subject of taunts and ridicule by the religious children of the neighborhood. One can only imagine what effect this had on that which he had been taught about Jews being kind and sympathetic people. He struggled on for a while, but eventually it became too much to bear, and he went back.

As Sarah Shapiro concludes: “Shall we attribute his departure to our country’s children behaving like children? Or to Israeli parents’ gross failure to passionately inculcate the most basic of Jewish values: respect for the other, who was also created by G-d – the other, who is not like you.

“Where are you now, Matt? And who in the world do you think we are?”

• Sources:
Bereishis Rabbah 36:7 and Yefeh To’ar ad loc.
Ta’anis 20a and Maharsha ad loc.
HaEmek Davar
Sarah Shapiro, Don’t You Know It’s A Perfect World?, Targum Press 1998

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Thursday, May 28, 2020


Mishpachah magazine has an article by Rav Aharon Lopiansky that includes some truly amazing paragraphs. Someone wrote to me that it looks just like some of my blog posts! Here are some choice excerpts:
We are no longer/not yet a nation in the full sense. A nation is an entity that has a framework whereby it can act as a unit. Without Mashiach, we have no head, no authority, no structure, no enforcement. We can have rousing speeches, ringing kol-koreis, an inspirational Siyum HaShas, and stern admonitions, but we do only what we wish to do. Even for the people who are sympathetic to the values expressed in the proclamations, there is very little specific follow-through.
Yes, thankfully we have our gedolei Torah, but even that seems to be subjective depending on who you are speaking to. For those who point to “The Moetzes” as “leadership,” I would ask, do you mean Agudah’s Moetzes, Degel’s Moetzes, Peleg’s Moetzes, or Shas’s Moetzes Chachamei HaTorah? Is it the Crown Heights Beis Din? And what about Satmar and others who do not subscribe to any of the above? And Centrist Orthodox and Modern Orthodox? And the many Yidden who do not fit into any of those categories?
And this one: 
We tend to think of “ourselves” — the Torah-observant community — as Klal Yisrael, and the others as a reservoir of potential additions. It’s the other way around! Klal Yisrael is the sum total of all of us, and we are missing 90 percent of our “self.”
I used to be fairly close with Rav Lopiansky, and even though he was forced to capitulate in the controversy over my books, I remained on good terms with him. It's good to see him publishing these things in Misphacha.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020


It's jarring to see how different Memorial Day in the US is from Yom HaZikaron in Israel. For Israel (except some non- and anti-Zionist communities), Yom HaZikaron is an extremely serious business. There's nothing more foundational to the ethics of society than showing appreciation and respect for those who gave their lives to preserve that society. In the United States, on the other hand, it seems to this Brit that there is very little regard for Memorial Day (EDIT - I realize that this is a generalization and it depends very much on what part of America you are in).

Well, at least this year, people can make an excuse that they are taking their cue from the President.

I don't use Twitter, but I happened to take a look at President Trump's twitter feed. I was truly speechless to see that he was truly speechless. He had nothing, absolutely nothing, to say about Memorial Day. Yes, there were videos of his scripted speeches, but in terms of writing about it - and he writes about what he cares about - he had nothing to say. The only thing that he wrote about was his fury against the media for criticizing him for playing golf over the weekend!

Of course, that ranting is in any case unjustified. Trump argues that Obama also played golf during times of crisis. That may be, but there are three crucial points that he neglects to mention. First is that Trump's golf vacations vastly exceed Obama's. Second is that Trump himself, while campaigning, said that if he would be elected, he would not play golf. Third is that Trump himself harshly criticized Obama for playing golf! So if it's okay for him to criticize presidents that play golf, why shouldn't other people do it?!

A hundred thousand Americans have died from coronavirus. It's a day that commemorates countless more that died for America. And all he cares about is people criticizing him - for the same thing that he criticized others for?

There are people who don't believe that any good person can vote for Trump. I'm not American, but I can totally understand it; after all, there may be important policy differences between Republicans and Democrats that can be reasonably seen as being the most significant thing. And Jews understandably want to support someone who expresses strong pro-Israel sentiments, and who surrounds himself with pro-Israel people rather than the reverse. But what I can't understand is people who do not see any serious character problems with President Trump.

(I hope that it's not too much to ask everyone reading this to be able to look at things in shades other than black-and-white.)

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Late To The Party, Again

Well, it took a couple of years, but the charedi establishment finally reached the same conclusion as everyone else: that the person they referred to as "HaRav HaChasid R. Eliezer Berland, Shlita" is actually a thoroughly evil monster. They acknowledged that he has transgressed, or has committed sins that come close to transgressing, all three cardinal sins - idolatry, murder, and illicit relations. Idolatry - for setting himself up as a deity. Murder - for encouraging his followers to beat and even kill his opponents. And illicit relations - taking advantage of countless women.

The results of this investigation by the three top charedi Batei Din were just announced. The investigation itself was launched, with publicity, last June. At the time, I wrote a post entitled HaRav HaRasha, Shlita, in which I was sharply critical of this enterprise.

The primary problem was that no such investigation was required. Berland had already confessed in court and was convicted. There was also plenty of video evidence of his madness. The new charedi investigation also gave Berland a hechsher while it was taking place, stating that nobody was allowed to speak against HaRav HaChasid, shlita, until the investigation was complete.

There's a steady pattern of things that us non-charedim realize, and which the charedi establishment denies, and which eventually the charedi establishment is forced to come to acknowledge. Many people were warning for years that Rabbi Leib Tropper was a sicko; the Gedolim instead were giving him unprecedented power, but were later forced to agree. Everyone warned that crowded situations should be avoided when coronavirus broke out; the Gedolim insisted that the yeshivos should stay open because "Torah protects", but were later forced to agree. And now they have finally agreed that the non-charedim were correct about Berland, too.

(The supposed justification for the way in which the charedi investigation was done was that only such an investigation, launched with the consent of Berland, would get his followers to abide by the ruling. If anyone thinks that this is actually going to happen, I've got a bridge to sell them. Read about this "biography" of him on Amazon, and check out the reader reviews.)

Being late has consequences. Tropper ruined lives. Coronavirus took lives. And for years, Berland was allowed to continue his sick preatory activities without any opposition from the charedi establishment. Just a few months ago, he was arrested again after it was discovered that he was fleecing millions of shekels from terminally ill patients by promising miracle cures.

But the problems here go beyond those caused by needless delays. What happens even now? To what extent will the findings of these Batei Din be publicized?

Years ago, Mishpachah magazine printed an article, "The Fire and the Light: The Mystical World of Rav Eliezer Berland" which was a puff-piece about the holy Rav Berland. Are they going to print a follow-up article warning about him? Of course not. (And kal v'chomer Ami magazine won't print anything; besides, they are too busy triumphantly boasting about how ultra-Orthodoxy reacted to coronavirus.) In the official world of Orthodoxy, it just doesn't happen that revered rabbis have any significant flaws, let alone turn out to be monstrous predators.

This refusal to air dirty laundry has several terrible consequences. One is that it means that people are more vulnerable to being preyed upon, since they are conditioned to believe that Holy Men can't possibly do anything wrong. Another is that people who are preyed upon are much less likely to tell anyone about the absolutely unthinkable thing that happened. And yet another is that the predators enjoy much greater freedom, since they know that people are very unlikely to expose them.

Some people complain that I spend too much time criticizing the problems with charedi society. Well, if charedi society itself would be open about exposing its problems, there would be less need for other people to do so.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Are Penguins Kosher?

After giving a live online tour of the Hall Of Kashrut at the Biblical Museum of Natural History this week, for Kushner Hebrew Academy, I received the following feedback and question from the Director of Jewish Studies, Rabbi Yaacov Feit:
Thank you so much for this morning's exceptional and enjoyable presentation. Beyond your expertise in the field combined with your sense of humor and ability to present I really appreciated how you worked the chat so well to allow for participation even remotely. This was an opportunity to really capitalize on our unfortunate situation and bring their Torah study to life. Tizkeh Lemitzvos! My students asked me why penguins aren't kosher. Any thoughts?

I've been asked this question a few times over the years, and I've given it a lot of thought. Initially, it would appear that penguins should be kosher. After all, the only birds that are not kosher are the two dozen types of birds listed in the Torah as being not kosher. Now, while there is some dispute as to the identities of these birds, nobody suggests that one of them is a penguin! True, the Torah's list of "types" (minim) is not a list of zoological species, and one type could include many similar species (such as the atalef, which includes one thousand species of bats). But penguins are extremely dissimilar from all the birds in the Torah's list and would not be included in the same "type." Thus, it would initially appear that a penguin would be kosher (albeit that the lack of mesorah would prevent people from eating it).

However, in fact, matters are not so straightforward at all.

First of all, one must ask whether the penguin is a bird, in the Torah system of classification. As I discuss at length in the Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom, the system of taxonomy used in the Torah is very different from that of modern zoology. "Ohf" includes bats, which are mammals, because it does not refer to "birds," per se. One might then argue that the penguin is not an ohf, because it does not fly! Accordingly, there would be no basis to permit it.

However, according to the Gemara (albeit disputed by Yehudah Feliks), one of the other birds in the Torah's list is an ostrich, which does not fly either. And in any case, it would not be correct to say that ohf means "flying creature." The Torah's classification is a "folk taxonomy" (this is not an insulting or heretical term; it is an academic term with a specific meaning described in my encyclopedia). There aren't specific criteria to be an "ohf." Rather, it means something "birdish." Things can be birdish in different ways. Bats are birdish because they fly. Ostriches are birdish because they have beaks and two legs and feathers. Accordingly, penguins would also be in the category of ohf. (Though perhaps a case could be made that the kiwi bird is a sheretz rather than an ohf.)

So, given that the penguin is a "bird" in the Torah classification, and it is not mentioned in the Torah's list of non-kosher birds, does that mean that it is kosher? I would strongly argue that it is not kosher. But in order to explain why, we'll have to first discuss a different bird: the secretary bird.

The secretary bird, as those who have joined my Africa trips (or remember the old Disney film Bedknobs & Broomsticks) will know, is a very unusual bird. Its basic body (and beak) shape is that of a bird of prey, but it has a long tail, and exceptionally long legs, like a flamingo. It also has a remarkable crest of feathers sprouting from its head, like a writing-quill stuck behind the ears, which earns its name. The secretary bird lives only in sub-Saharan Africa, and is definitely not in the Torah's list of non-kosher birds. Nor could it reasonably be described as being included in the same min as one of the birds in the Torah's list, since it looks so utterly different from all of them.

On the other hand, there is absolutely no way that a secretary bird can be kosher. It's a bird of prey! It eats snakes and mongooses and hares and even young gazelles. Ramban states that the fundamental reason for non-kosher birds being non-kosher is that they are predatory. And while it seems to be a difficult overreach to say that it's the only reason for birds being non-kosher (since it would not account for certain non-kosher birds such as hoopoes and bats), it would seem clear that it is a sufficient reason. And the Mishnah in Chullin states explicitly that all predatory birds are not kosher.

There's just no way, conceptually or halachically, that a secretary bird could be kosher. And yet it's not one of the birds in the Torah's list of non-kosher birds!

The only possible answer is that the Torah's list of non-kosher birds is not comprehensive. Rather, following the Talmudic-based principles that I developed in my encyclopedia and in my book The Camel, The Hare & The Hyrax, we can say as follows. The animals of the Torah are the animals of Biblical lands. The four animals listed as possessing only one of the three kosher signs are the sole such animals in that region, not in the entire world. The ten types of mammals listed in Parashas Re'ay as being the kosher mammals are the sole such animals in that region, not in the entire world - the moose, chevrotain and okapi are also kosher. Likewise, the two dozen birds listed as being non-kosher are the non-kosher birds of that region, not of the entire world.

Now, this is the kind of thing that immediately gets the Kefira Cops revving up and ready to slam me as a heretic. But, after I came up with this approach, I then discovered that it's actually a Tosafos!

The Gemara in Chullin states that the Torah gives the most concise way of telling us which creatures we may and may not eat. Since there are more kosher birds than non-kosher birds, the Torah lists only the non-kosher birds. Now, Rashi explains this to mean that there are no non-kosher birds in the entire world other than the two dozen listed (which can only include other birds of the same type/min). But Tosafos (Chullin 61a) says that this does not have to be what the Gemara is saying. Rather, the Gemara could mean that listing the two dozen non-kosher birds gives us a way to identify which types of birds in general are not kosher, i.e. those which have similar characteristics to the birds listed! Baruch shekivanti.

Accordingly, since the non-kosher birds listed in the Torah include predatory birds, we can extrapolate and conclude that the secretary bird is not kosher. And since the list also includes "aberrant" birds such as ostriches and bats, kiwis would likewise not be kosher. And since it also includes fishing birds such as cormorants and gulls, penguins would likewise not be kosher!

Meanwhile, if you'd like to join our live online tours of the Biblical Museum of Natural History - or perhaps sponsor a program for your local shul or school - please see for details. As Rabbi Feit attested, this is an exceptional way to really capitalize on the world's unfortunate situation and bring Torah study to life!

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Frogs, Crocs and Birds

Here's a piece that I published in the Jewish Bible Quarterly a decade ago. I'm reposting it, because I took this wonderful photo in the museum yesterday which is perfect to accompany this article!

The second plague to befall Egypt was that of tzefardea. It is widely believed that the term tzefardea refers to frogs, but Ibn Ezra notes that there are actually two views on this matter:
"The commentators differed in their understanding of the word tzefarde'im. Many said it referred to a sort of fish found in Egypt, called al-timsah in Arabic, which comes out of the river and seizes human beings. Others say they are the creatures found in most of the rivers and that they make a sound. This explanation, which is well known, seems correct in my view." (Ibn Ezra to Exodus 7:27)
The former explanation is describing a crocodile. It is referred to as a fish, even though it is a reptile, because the Torah concept of fish also includes other aquatic creatures. Support for this identification is advanced from the description of how the frog plague ceased. The Midrash comments on the statement that the tzefarde'im shall remain in the river:
" 'The tzefarde'im shall retreat from you and your courtiers and your people; they shall remain only in the Nile' (Exodus 8:7) - Rabbi Yitzchak said, There are still deadly beasts in it that come out and kill people every year ... Moshe did not pray that the tzefarde'im be wiped out, only that they not harm Pharaoh, as it says, 'And Moshe cried out to the Lord in the matter of the tzefarde'im which He had inflicted upon Pharaoh'(Exodus 8:8)." (Midrash haGadol[1])
Rabbeinu Bachya elaborates at greater length:
"Moshe's words in his prayer stayed true for that time and for all generations. In accordance with his words, 'they shall remain only in the Nile,' to this very day the creeping water creature known as the al-timsah remains there. There it lives, and it is said that sometimes it comes out of the Nile where it lives, rising onto the river's edge and swallowing whatever it finds, even two or three humans at a time. Neither spear nor arrow can overcome its body, unless aimed for its belly. Physicians say it is venomous and that touching its body, even after its death, is harmful to man. It is of the tzefardea type, and from the power of Moshe's words, this creature remains there... This is also how Rabbeinu Chananel explained it, and regarding this it states, 'Speak of all His wonders' (Psalms 105:2)." (Rabbeinu Bachya, Exodus 10:19)
According to the second identification, preferred by Ibn Ezra, the tzefardea is the commonly found animal that makes a sound - the frog. This is also the explanation preferred by others:
"Some say it looks like a fish, that it is the timsah, which moves its upper jaw, unlike all other lowly creatures, and that it seizes humans and animals passing by the river's edge. But the correct explanation is that they are the known creatures of rivers and pools." (Sefer haMivchar[2])
We find the following evaluation in Sefer HaToda'ah:
"This type of destructive tzefardea did not exist in the Nile previously. After it was then created, it remains in the Egyptian river forever. It grows in the Nile to a great size, and damages and swallows creatures big and small. It is the tamsah, which is found in the Nile until today, as a memorial to that plague. And there are some of the commentaries who say that the tzefardea referred to here is the small croaking creature, and so it appears from the words of our rabbis in the midrashos." (Sefer HaToda'ah 23)
The midrashim to which he refers describe the frog as a small and weak creature, prey to snakes and aquatic creatures, that is extremely vocal. This description can only match the frog and does not match the crocodile at all.

What of the etymology of the name tzefardea - does that give an indication either way? Some claim it to be a word from an unknown foreign source.[3] It may be a combination of the root tzafar, meaning to chirp (as frogs do), along with the root rada, "muddy marsh," which is the frog's favored habitat. But there are those who state that the name tzefardea is a combination of two words, tzipor de'ah, "the bird of knowledge." Some explain this to refer to the frog, which chirps like a bird and knows when to stop:
"Tzefardea - a creeping creatures that emits cries all night, until morning, and it is tzipor da, 'the knowing bird,' that it knows the time of morning, to cease from its cries." (Chatzi Menasheh[4])
There is another explanation of "the knowing bird" that is more difficult to ascribe to either animal:
"Ba-tzefarde'im" - what is this word, tzefarde'a? There was a bird (tzipor) in the Nile that had intelligence (de'a), and when this bird called to them they came, and so they were named after this bird with intelligence: tzefar-de'a. (Midrash Lekach Tov to Exodus 7:28; cf. Yalkut Shimoni 7:182)
Pin by Flo iams on The far side | Gary larson cartoons, Funny ...
Neither frogs nor crocodiles are known to respond to the calls of birds. But there is a suggestion based on this midrash that there are similar reasons for positing that tzefardea refers to the crocodile.[5] There is an account by Herodotus, who visited Egypt in 459 B.C.E., of a small bird picking food from the teeth of a gaping crocodile. It has been suggested that this refers to the Egyptian plover, Pluvianus aegyptius, which has since also earned the name of "crocodile plover." It is said that while the crocodile rests with its mouth open, these intelligent birds peck at the crocodile's teeth in search of parasites. The crocodile makes no attempt to eat the bird and is apparently aware of its benefits. The bird is extremely cautious and gives a call when fleeing from danger, thus also warning the crocodile. Perhaps the tzefardea is the crocodile, named after its symbiotic partner, the intelligent bird that cleans it and warns it of danger.

A problem with this charming explanation is that the described phenomenon may not actually be true. Whether such a mutual relationship exists is hard to determine; in the zoological literature, few apart from Herodotus are actually recorded as having seen it.[6] One ornithologist claims that ".no reliable observer since then has seen [it] acting as a crocodile toothpick... The myth has been perpetuated in the literature and needs finally to be laid to rest, unless contrary proof can be found."[7] On the other hand, Israel's legendary crocodile hunter Ofer Kobi, who spent decades hunting and farming crocodiles in Africa, informed me that he has observed it.[8] If it does exist, it is rare, and seems more likely to be opportunistic rather than symbiotic.

In conclusion, while there are those who have explained the tzefardea of Egypt to refer to the crocodile, its usage in Midrashic sources and its etymology indicate that the frog is the more likely contender, as several of the commentaries conclude. Some suggest that the name tzefardea refers to amphibious herptiles in general, and could thereby include both frogs and crocodiles. This is the explanation given by the Netziv, who states that whereas most of Egypt was plagued only by frogs, Pharaoh and his entourage were attacked by crocodiles.[9]

[1] Margaliyot edition, pp. 121-122; originally from Mishnat R. Eliezer, p. 354.
[2] Cited in Torah Sheleimah, Shemos 8:16.
[3] Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, Emes LeYaakov, Shemos 7:27.
[4] A collection of manuscripts cited in Torah Sheleimah 7:108. This explanation is also given by Maharil, cited in B'Shmi U'lekavodi Berasiv, tzefardea.
[5] Prof. Daniel Sperber, "The Frog was a Crocodile," Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center, Parashat VaEra 5759/1999.
[6] "Despite being corroborated by two eminent German ornithologists in the 19th and 20th centuries, this alleged behavior has never been properly authenticated." Richford, Andrew S., and Christopher J. Mead, "Pratincoles and Coursers," in Christopher Perrins (Ed.). Firefly Encyclopedia of Birds (Firefly Books 2003) pp. 252-253.
[7] Maclean, G. L., "Family Glareolidae (Coursers and Pratincoles)" in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., & Sargatal, J., eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World (Barcelona: Lynx Edicions 1996) vol. 3 pp. 364-383.
[8] Personal conversation at the Crocoloco ranch, September 2008. For further information on Kobi, whose amazing ranches I visited in Kenya and Israel, see
[9] See HaEmek Davar, Shemos 7:28-29 for his ingenious method of deriving this from the verses.

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Sunday, May 17, 2020

"He Had A Gold Mine In His Hands And He Crushed It"

A very significant article about how Rav Chaim Kanievsky's court operates was published in the Hebrew paper "The Marker." It was translated for this website by Elisha Loewenstern:

"He Had A Gold Mine In His Hands And He Crushed It": 
The Mistake Made By Rabbi Kanievsky's Grandson 

With a lot of faith, determination and elbows, Yanki Kanievsky paved his way to the top of the court of his grandfather, known as the "Minister of Torah," and controlled the budget, meetings and politics with a strong arm. 

By Liat Levy and Bini Ashkenazi 

About six months ago, 25 people gathered in the ancient synagogue in Motza, which sometimes serves as an event hall. The purpose of the gathering was to celebrate the 30th birthday of one of the most powerful people in Haredi society: Yanki Kanievsky, the grandson of Rabbi Haim Kanievsky, who is also known as "the Prince of Torah." The invitees included family members, as well as MK Uri Maklev of United Torah Judaism, Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon, and Yosef Haim Kalaf, Arye Deri's close adviser. As is common in celebrity affairs, the guests were requested not to take photos of the event; indeed, there is no mention of it on the internet or social media. Various sources with whom we spoke said that the event was proof, for those who still needed it, of the great influence of Yanki Kanievsky.

About two months ago, Rabbi Haim Kanievsky, the leader of the Lithuanian Haredi community, became a household name and figure of interest among the wider Israeli public as well. A video posted on the web, in which he is heard giving instruction not to close the Haredi yeshivas and educational institutions, contrary to the instructions of the Health Ministry, went viral and caused much anger on the Haredi street. The video shows the 92-year-old rabbi alongside his grandson Yanki, who says to him: "The whole state wants to say now that all the hederim should not hold studies... until they know what will happen with this epidemic ... The question is whether Grandpa thinks that the hederim should be canceled because of this?" Rabbi Kanievsky is seen in the video answering his grandson, "God forbid." "So can I tell them on behalf of Grandpa that the hederim must remain open for the sake of the children's studies?" the grandson continued; and the rabbi nodded in agreement.

This approval of the great halakhic authority sowed confusion and intensified the power struggles between the different courts of Haredi leadership. On the one hand, this was a ruling of the Gadol Hador, the "leader of the generation." On the other hand, it was a blatant violation of the Health Ministry's instructions, a potentially life-threatening decision. At the thick of this controversy stood the Haredi politicians, who were afraid to defy him.

"I believe in his blessing," says a close associate of the rabbi. "Not because he studied medicine, but because of the power of his Torah. The Torah defends and saves; that's not just a slogan. Though not at the price of lawlessness, the Torah must be adhered to under the guidelines of the Health Ministry."

"In retrospect, Yanki received a lethal blow here," says a source proficient in Haredi politics. "The video created a crisis of trust between the Haredi public and government directives, which is why it took the Haredi public time to internalize that they must obey the instructions." This interval came at the expense of the health of not a few of his followers. Only a few days later, Rabbi Kanievsky's court issued a statement that the Health Ministry's instructions had to be obeyed. The court, which had thus far been the most influential in the Haredi sector, was caught with its pants down. On Haredi social media, the grandson Yanki was accused of manipulating his grandfather. The ruling was another attempt at consolidating the rabbi's standing as the main halachic authority in the Ashkenazi Haredi community, and Yanki's status as his manager; but there are those who claim that this time, Yanki had gone too far.

Yanki Kanievsky, only 30, is the person who officially runs the house of Rabbi Haim Kanievsky, also known as the House on Rashbam Street, since it is located on Rashbam Street in Bnei Brak. He is the eldest son of Shuki Kanievsky, the youngest son of the rabbi. He has three brothers and four sisters. Kanievsky is married and lives in an apartment he owns in Bnei Brak. As a young man, he studied in a yeshiva in Hadera; but although he was listed as a member of the Kollel, he lived and breathed sectoral politics from an early age. Although he is one of the rabbi's younger grandchildren, he is in charge of the goings and comings in the rabbi's home. He is the one approves and arranges meetings with the rabbi, decides who will get a photo with the rabbi, who will be blessed and who will receive a video of support.

Controlling which nonprofit will receive the rabbi's blessing and which radio station will advertise the House's activities and fundraising is worth a lot of power and money in Haredi society. In the sector, Yanki is described as the community kingmaker, the one who pulls the strings and whose authority is undisputed. He has the power to arrange who will be employed in the sector's various educational institutions, public events, political institutions, and also who will be fired and where will budgets be channeled. He recommends PRs, advertisers, producers, photographers, strategic advisors, journalists and lawyers, such that no one wants to quarrel with the House, because that could mean a loss of livelihood. He was crowned a political strategist when he led the move known as the "Sephardi-Lithuanian axis," an unnatural collaboration between Shas and Degel HaTorah in the municipal elections in October 2018, aimed at strengthening the political power of Degel HaTorah in the municipalities. Yanki wove this move together with Yosef Haim Halaf, and it was successful in many municipalities, including Jerusalem and Haifa.

Grandson Kanievsky even maintained contacts with political figures at the national level. Hod Betzer, Benny Gantz's chief of staff, and who during the last Knesset election campaign was responsible for communication with various sectors, was a guest at Yanki's sister's wedding in the midst of the third round of elections, with rumors of contact between the two in the background.

Another meeting proving Yanki's political aspirations took place in May 2019. Immediately after the first round of elections, he arrived at the headquarters of Yisrael Beitenu in Jerusalem. Back then, the bad blood between the Haredi parties and Avigdor Lieberman was almost solely concerning the draft law, and Kanievsky came to examine the feasibility of a compromise on the legislation that would enable Lieberman to enter the government. "There was a desire to see whether Lieberman was willing to modify his statement that he would not agree to change even a comma or a period in the draft law," says a source proficient in the details. He said that if Rabbi Kanievsky had accepted the bargain, the issue of recruitment would have been resolved, there would be a government today, "and we would not be dragged into this ongoing election saga." Lieberman refused to compromise and the political consequences are well known, but it was another landmark for the Kanievsky grandson's attempt to establish his grandfather's status as a political leader.

"Yanki is a sympathetic and poignant person, but also forceful," says a source familiar with the balance of power in Haredi society. "He'll burn you if he wants to. A lot of people know that you don't mess with him."

Yanki took on the task of managing the House about five years ago, accompanied by a well-oiled PR system that includes distributing SMS messages through a hotline about his meetings with senior officials, as well as messages that are clearly intended to glorify his considerable public influence. His dominant character is even more apparent when juxtaposed with his cousin, Arye Kanievsky, with whom he splits the shifts of staying with his grandfather. Arye is considered to be the calm and gentle grandson, who helps his grandfather no less than Yanki, but does not interfere or make public decisions in the rabbi's name and in his stead. "Arye does not treat his grandfather as an axe to grind," says a source familiar with the conduct of the House. "During his shifts there is no selection of visitors; his conduct is fair; no shtick like yes or no photo with the rabbi; no shady deals. If Arye had more influence, everything in this house would look different."

"Yanki treats his grandfather as a business" 

For many years, from the time of Rabbi Shach, the Lithuanian community was led by its rabbis, its Gedolei HaDor, who kept their distance from the political world and engaged in Torah study. The concept was that anyone who devotes himself to the Torah does not engage in political matters. When the Lithuanian community needed public decisions, they turned to Rabbi Shalom Yosef Elyashiv. After the latter's death, the leadership was split between Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Steinman, who died in 2017, and Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, who died in 2018. Today, there are two courts competing for leadership: Rabbi Kanievsky (whose late wife, Batsheva, was the daughter of Rabbi Elyashiv) and Rabbi Gershon Edelstein – head of Yeshivat Ponevezh, which is considered the flagship of the Lithuanian Haredi Torah world. "Rabbi Kanievsky was never a figure who made political decisions," explains a source who is knowledgeable of the balance of power in the sector. "He is a tzaddik, not a leader. He is primarily concerned with giving blessings. Rabbi Edelstein is an old man and a Torah scholar, but also capable of asking and making decisions. He is a practical figure. "

"For anyone who wants a blessing, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky is the address," explains another source. "The man is detached from this world, and people believe that his blessings are fulfilled." Among the veteran blessing-seekers of the House are Gideon Sa'ar, Arye Deri, Minister Naftali Bennett and former Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich, all of whom were photographed with the rabbi, who thereby grants them legitimacy on the one hand and whose political status in enhanced on the other. "But between this and deciding whether to join the coalition or to open institutions during the epidemic," the source adds, "there is a fine line."

Yanki, sources say, is the person who decided to change his grandfather's image from that of a famous rabbi, the Rebbe of the Lithuanians, to a politically influential figure – and it seems to have been quite successful for him. During the last election year, the rabbi became a popular destination for blessings. Among those who came for photo-ops were Minister Yisrael Katz, who said after the visit, "The rabbi heard about my activity as the Minister of Transportation;" Minister Rafi Peretz; Raz Kisenstilich, mayor of Rishon LeZion; and even Yonatan Orich and Ofer Golan, advisers of the Prime Minister. Yanki told his grandfather that the two are helping the Prime Minister with Yiddishkeit (preserving Jewish values), and that the police and the state attorney are pursuing them to prevent them from helping the Prime Minister.

Besides the political power, Rabbi Kanievsky's house is a junction that sits on a lot of money and large budgets. The rabbi's name, blessing, and pictures are used to encourage various activities, from donations to charity to sifrei kodesh. "Yanki treats his grandfather as a business," says a source close to the community. "Rabbi Kanievsky is an important name. An organization that campaigns with Rabbi Kanievsky's name receives more donations."

From information that came to our attention, it appears that Haredi PRs and advertisers are also making commercial use of the rabbi's house. Among others, the advertising company 360 Links, owned by Racheli Greenwald, the daughter of Lithuanian businessman Motke Levi, offers its clients collaboration with Kanievsky's house as part of a strategic consultancy package. There is no detail of what this collaboration includes, but the language of the offer indicates that the rabbi is one of the means of promoting the product. Greenwald denies the details and said in response to our request: "There is no such thing. Whoever wants can go to the rabbi's door and stand in line. The line is sometimes long, because all the people of Israel want to be blessed by the rabbi. I engage in a vain field, selling advertising and public relations. I do not sell spiritual or holy services. Neither donations nor blessings. Only material things. "

Markerweek has provided evidence of PR offices offering customers the rabbi's blessing of a successful endeavor, a process that includes a filmed documentation of the event and its dissemination in the Haredi press, as a means of producing a kosher stamp on each service. These services do not always have a separate price tag, because they can easily be deemed a desecration of God's name in Haredi society. Sometimes the service is payed for as part of a larger strategic package; other times, it is sufficient to pay the rabbi's house by donating a Torah scroll, or donating to one of the funds that the rabbi wishes to support.

A source knowledgeable of the details says that getting customers into the rabbi's house is an accepted practice. Sometimes this happens through the Haredi sector journalists, who also serve as middlemen. "When there are problems in the House, it needs someone who has a newspaper to write and put in items for it," the source explains. He hints at the crisis that has occurred regarding the opening of educational institutions, and the House's need for a journalist to publish clarifications or positions intended for the public, even if they do not match the rabbi's exact messages. "For example, a press release that says the rabbi said there will be no more minyanim, not even on balconies. The House needs it to be published, and that same newspaper now has an open door with the rabbi."

Donate and you will not get infected 

The most well-known enterprise that the rabbi is signed on to is Kupat Ha'ir, the city fund of Bnei Brak - the most well-known charity in the sector, which aims to financially support the needy and orphans. In 2018 alone, the fund had a turnover of NIS 128 million, 70 million of which came from donations inside Israel. The fund is so branded that, among the Haredim, it has become synonymous with charity. Its fundraising events are well-publicized festivals, with radio broadcasts and newspaper ads alongside promises of health and redemption to donors by Rabbi Kanievsky himself.

In the midst of the closure following the coronavirus outbreak, Kupat Ha'ir promised in the name of Rabbi Kanievsky that anyone who would donate substantial sums of money to the fund, he and his household would not be infected with the virus. In a conversation that journalist Nir Gontagez had with representatives of the fund, later published in Haaretz, the fundraiser is heard saying: "Rabbi Kanievsky said that there is a measure for a measure. Whoever donates... he makes sure there are no ill people in his home... Rabbi Kanievsky said that in order for the 'measure for a measure' to take effect, the sum should be significant. Possibly ... he said (NIS) 3,000." The representative explained the high amount, reasoning that "this is the average monthly support necessary for an ill person. We request that a standing order of 3,000 be paid."

With regard to how the funds of the Kupa are distributed, there is a difference of opinion. According to the organization's financial reports, NIS 113 million were distributed to charity; however, there are voices in the sector that claim the distribution of the funds is a well-kept secret. In 2018, the Kupa received government support from the Ministry of Welfare at an amount of NIS 1.3 million designated for Kimcha DePischa, food distribution before the holidays. One source deeply involved in Haredi society claims a lack of transparency and discrimination in the distribution of the funds, in favor of those affiliated with the Lithuanian Haredi society, despite the obligation of charities that receive support from the state to meet the criteria of transparency and equality.

Another source, also familiar with the Haredi street, claims that the Kupa actually supports all parts of the Haredi sector. One way or the other, Kupat Ha'ir has become synonymous with the mitzvah of tzedakah, so important in Haredi society, as an implementation of the Talmudic dictum "charity will save from death."

Kupat Ha'ir is also invested in 12% of the Megureit real estate foundation: it invested NIS 12.5 million in the purchase of the Megureit's shares, and despite criticism of the move – using donations to invest in a real estate company – an examiner on behalf of the Registrar of Foundations determined that the Foundation acted in accordance with the procedures in its decision to invest in the company. Besides Kupat Ha'ir, there are other organizations that are associated with the House, such as Arevim, a fund for widows and orphans that is run by members of Kupat Ha'ir, and Ateret Shlomo. Last February, the Prime Minister' attorney Amit Haddad arrived at the House with his partner Ariel Roth. The two happened to arrive at a fundraising event for the Ateret Shlomo institutions. As befitting of such a publicized event, the Haredi press reported that Rabbi Kanievsky had asked them to support the institutions. The two quickly wrote a check for a total of NIS 1 million for Ateret Shlomo's benefit, and also had a photo-op with the rabbi. Haddad apparently thought that a photo of him in Rabbi Kanievsky's house would benefit him, because at the time he had left his home office, following the passing of Attorney Yaakov Weinroth. Weinroth himself, a popular figure in the Haredi sector, was close with Rabbi Kanievsky; the two had studied together sometimes, and Haddad was in need of recognition from the rabbi. A person familiar with the balance of power in the House says that immediately afterward the donation check was torn up. Haddad rejects this claim, saying that the donation was given.

The person who was obviously present in the pictures was the grandson Yanki. A few months earlier, Haddad represented the chairman of Ateret Shlomo, to whom he wrote the check, Rabbi Shalom Ber Sorotskin, in a lawsuit he filed against El Al for its Shabbat flight, a flight that took off from New York to Tel Aviv in November 2018 and had to land in Athens to prevent the desecration of Shabbat, and Sorotzkin was among its passengers.

Rabbi Kanievsky's image is displayed under the name of many other foundations as well. Some are more familiar, such as Hidabroot and Matnat Chaim, the kidney donation foundation headed by the late Rabbi Yeshayahu Haber, and some less known, like Yad Eliezer. When it comes to big nonprofits unassociated with the House, the rabbi's support doesn't come for free. "When it comes to large organizations, getting Haim Kanievsky's name involves 'getting along' with Yanki," says a source in the world of advertising.

"Getting along," sources say, could be done by a gift or a donation to a third nonprofit. That is what was required of A., a young Haredi man whose father wrote and published a halakhic book, and he accompanied him to a meeting at the rabbi's house to obtain an approbation for the book. Such an approbation is a kind of qualification for a halakhic work's legitimacy; if a Gadol HaDor signs on it, the book is praiseworthy. After a brief meeting, the rabbi confirmed that he would give his approbation, and sent A.'s father to Shuki, the rabbi's eldest son and Yanki's father, who, among other responsibilities, drafts the letters that the rabbi signs. But Shuki did not give him the letter of consent. "My father did not understand why he wasn't receiving the approbation for his book, even though the rabbi said that it should be given," says A. "Then someone explained to my dad that the approbation costs money. They just told him: Just offer a sum." A. relates that his father was hinted that he should give NIS 100,000 to the rabbi's house, but his father refused and remained without the approbation.

A source from Rabbi Kanievsky's house rejects the claims. "It is true that unfortunately things are published about this issue of money, and that there are also organizations that advertise that they will pass on questions and names to the rabbi for money and they do not pass the questions and names for blessing. I know that," he says. "But realize that we spend money ourselves. We run a system, we pay the secretary who receives emails and faxes and makes appointments for people to receive a blessing from the rabbi. We try to help every Jew. Even during the period of the coronavirus, the rabbi receives dozens of questions a day, and we try to help. Money is irrelevant."

"You can see that Rabbi Kanievsky is no longer entirely 'with it'" 

Alongside Kupat Ha'ir operates a national fund called Shutafim LaTorah. It was supposed to be an umbrella organization for small Haredi institutions from all sectors – Hasidim, Lithuanians and Sephardim – who would join forces to become one major fundraising organization whose income would support Kollel students. This is how the system works: Institutions pay membership fees to the fund, which raises donations and supports the institutions equitably. The membership fee for each institution is between NIS 12-18 per listed student. To this day, the head of the foundation is Shuki, Yanki's father, who is also a board member. A source involved in the organization's activity says that Yanki is seen in its offices regularly. "It was clear he was giving the instructions," he says.

In its first year of operation, 2015, Shutafim LaTorah raised NIS 3.3 million from donations and membership fees. It placed designated, ATM-like donation machines in popular donating locations, enabling people to enter names into the machine for Rabbi Kanievsky to bless them, in exchange for a donation. This machine was called a Brachomat, a combination of the Hebrew words for blessing ("bracha") and ATM ("kaspomat"). The startup organization seemed to be booming; the nonprofit's offices were located in luxury offices, plasma screens were distributed to the various yeshivot, and they began planning strategic moves to raise donations, including, among other ideas, using the name and image of Rabbi Kanievsky as the figure behind the system, leading its campaigns. However, a review of the foundation's financial reports reveals that during the same year, scholarships worth NIS 1 million were distributed, including checks carrying Electra Air Conditioners' logo; while an additional NIS 930,000 were allocated for salaries and NIS 1.6 million for fundraising and the establishment of a relief fund.

In March 2016, in a laconic email sent to the administrators of institutions who paid their membership fees, the foundation announced it was canceling the collection of fees. According to its financial reports, NIS 673,000 were collected via the membership fees various institutions in 2016. One year later, no membership fees were collected, but the foundation raised NIS 1.23 million in donations, of which only NIS 10,000 – 1% of the donations – were allocated to the purpose for which the charity was established two years earlier. On the other hand, according to the financial reports, NIS 540,000, almost half of the sum of the funds raised, were allocated to payment of salaries in that year.

In 2018, the foundation's situation seemed to have recovered, and it was able to raise about NIS 2 million from donations, half a million of which were donated by Daniel Dedon's Seldat Inc. In that year the organization allocated NIS 500,000 in scholarships, but again, a much high amount went to salaries, fundraising and administrative expenses.

Moshe Horn, CEO of Shutafim LaTorah, sent in response: "The Shutafim LaTorah Foundation distributed NIS 1,000,000 to the needy in 2016-2020, according to clear criteria and orderly distribution. In addition to offering this vast scope of financial aid to those in need, the foundation assists organizations operating in the field of education and Torah study, and operates in accordance with its goals throughout the years in an orderly manner. All the financial reports are monitored and managed by the accounting firm BDO, one of the largest in Israel."

The video in which Rabbi Kanievsky gave the instruction to open educational institutions was not the only one that was recently publicized and caused discomfort among the public. A few days before the last election, in March, the rabbi was photographed inside a vehicle, his dominant grandson again beside him, telling him: "There is some kind of epidemic spreading around the world, called coronavirus. Many people have died and thousands of people are sick from it. Some people have a great fear that it will affect them, too, so people are asking if anyone who votes for United Torah Judaism in the election, will it be a safeguard for him that he will not catch this disease? " Rabbi Kanievsky seems to nod his head in affirmation. The promise that those who vote UTJ would be protected against the coronavirus irritated many people.

This video, like its predecessor, was considered by many to be further evidence of the problematic conduct of Yanki, and it further deteriorated his status in Haredi society. "Yanki is maintaining a brand (Rabbi Haim Kanievsky; LL and BA) and this brand may have been hurt among the general public, but in the Haredi community, such a brand is not harmed by one mistake," says a source knowledgeable of Haredi politics. "However, within the internal WhatsApp groups of the Haredi community, Yanki has become a highly despised person."

"Yanki had a gold mine in his hands," adds another source. "All the rich people who came to his grandfather's house went through him. Rabbi Kanievsky has no official reception protocol, and Yankee is the one who decides who will come in. It's a booming business, but now the good taste is spoiled. The rich people see that Rabbi Kanievsky is no longer 'with it'; in the videos he looks senile. I think many people will stop giving him money."

It is not only within the internal Haredi WhatsApp groups that the grandson's status is at a low. In the midst of the coronavirus period, Ya'ir Sherkey of Channel 12 News revealed that Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, the head of the Lithuanian Ponevezh Yeshiva, ordered the Yated Ne'eman newspaper not to publish a letter from Rabbi Kanievsky that demanded the immediate resumption of the Haredi educational institutions. Rabbi Edelstein's standing up to Rabbi Kanievsky is considered quite a precedent, and it may even imply that the Rosh Yeshiva assumed that the letters coming out of Rabbi Kanievsky's house are not necessarily his full initiative and under his control.

Translated by Elisha Loewenstern, Phone # (972) 50-408-3257 

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Thursday, May 14, 2020

Who Are "Torah Jews"?

Labels for communities are useful. Sure, labels are generalizations, but there's nothing wrong with generalizations, as long as everyone knows that they are generalizations. So, we have labels such as "Religious Zionists" and "Modern Orthodox" and "Charedi" and they are all very useful labels.

Now, the term "charedi" is sometimes interpreted incorrectly. Last week Rav Gershon Edelstein, the most prominent Torah leader in the Litvishe charedi world, was in the news for his explanation of why charedim suffered the most from coronavirus. Rav Edelstein claimed that this was because God punishes charedim for their sins more strictly than Jews who are "tinokos shenishbu," who sin out of ignorance. Yet this begs the question: where do Religious Zionists fit into this?

I asked some people what they thought. One person told me that Rav Edelstein was using the term "charedi" simply to mean Orthodox Jews. Of course, the problem with this is that non-charedi Orthodox Jews did not suffer from such a high rate of coronavirus infections. But another person, a charedi rabbi, told me that Rav Edelstein meant exactly what he said: non-charedim, including dati-leumi people and rabbis, are tinokos shenishbu. Amazing! He is saying that they didn't suffer so much from coronavirus because, although they are shomrei mitzvos, even though they might live in communities that are seriously focused on Torah and mitzvos, their Zionist perspective so fundamentally perverts their religious outlook that they are rated as tinokos shenishbu for all the sins that they do. Still, while offensive, this presumably is what Rav Edelstein meant (since religious Zionist communities were not hit hard by coronavirus). Some people are just uncomfortable with it, and therefore try to distort the meaning of the term "charedi."

Nevertheless, by and large, the term "charedi" is usually used and understood correctly. But there's one label that's become increasingly popular, yet which is often used problematically. That label is "Torah Jews," and its associated term "Torah community."

There are two problems with this label. One is that its intended definition is at best ambiguous and at worst deeply problematic. Does "Torah Jews" refer to Jews who are particularly passionate about learning Torah or about living Torah? After all, we wouldn't describe a non-Jewish scholar of Talmud as being a "Torah" person. By the same token, if you have people who are obsessed with learning Torah, but don't live up to the basic ideals of Torah in terms of creating a high-functioning society of people who fulfill their responsibilities to their families and their nation, perhaps they should not be described as "Torah Jews."

The second problem with the label "Torah Jews" is that it's ambiguous in terms of which Jews it is intended to refer to. Does "Torah Jews" refer to religious Jews or specifically to charedi Jews? If you look at the writings of someone like Jonathan Rosenblum, you'll see both usages (see, for example, how he uses the term in this article and this one - sometimes changing the meaning of the term from one paragraph to the next).

I have noticed that "Torah Jews" is sometimes used in a way that superficially appears to mean all committed shomrei mitzvos, but which is actually being used to mean specifically charedim. This deceptive usage is done (sometimes subconsciously) in order to manipulate a point.

A few years ago I received an unfortunate letter from a neighbor and former friend, Rabbi X, who  has a fairly influential role in Jewish education. He wrote to try and convince me of the error of my ways in writing all the "lashon hara" on this blog:
"I think that you need to be aware of how the Torah world views you and what you are doing..."
The "Torah" world?! Of course, what he really means is the charedi world. Among Religious Zionists and American non-charedim, pretty much everything that I write is normative and largely obvious.

Rabbi X proceeded to warn me about how by constantly criticizing charedi society, I risk my children leaving Orthodoxy:
"I certainly don't wish anything bad for your family, G-d forbid, but I am worried about what will happen with your kids if you continue your single-minded bashing of the Charedi/Yeshiva world at every opportunity... Is there some community that your kids feel they are a part of? They can't merely be bombarded with the problems in the Torah world, they need to see the enormous good there as well."
Well, yes, there is a community that my kids feel they are a part of. It's the religious Zionist community. My children davven in a religious Zionist shul and go to religious Zionist schools (with religious Zionist rebbeim) and will go to religious Zionist yeshivah gedolah and maybe even religious Zionist community kollel. And my children are fully aware of the problems with the charedi world, partly because they live in Ramat Beit Shemesh and see the worst of it. Since they don't identify as being part of the charedi world in the least bit, it's not a problem for them to be aware of its flaws - just as Rabbi X doesn't feel that his children being educated in charedi yeshivos about the problems of Zionist society is going to harm their religious identity.

The terms "Torah Jews" and "Torah community" are often used as an attempt to sideline and negate non-charedi communities such as religious Zionists and centrist/modern Orthodoxy. (Or sometimes people explicitly say, as Rabbi Shafran did a few weeks ago, that the charedi world is the "mainstream Orthodox world.") In fact, many people within the charedi world don't even really grasp that non-charedi frum communities exist! They simply don't consider that there are communities of religious Jews and yeshivos and kollelim and rabbis and Torah scholars that are not charedi. But such communities of people do exist - and as far as I'm concerned, they are the real "Torah Jews."

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Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Penfold's Perspective

Recently, after receiving a particularly large amount of criticism, I wrote a post titled "Isn't It Lashon Hara? Do I Have Noble Motives? And What Do I Hope To Accomplish?". I described the purpose of my posts, and I also requested readers to write comments explaining why they appreciate this forum. One person sent in a particularly lengthy explanation, and so I decided to reproduce it here. The author has unfortunately but understandably chosen to stay anonymous, and chose the pseudonym "Penfold."

I've followed R. Slifkin's output closely for the last fifteen years or so, such that it is not easy for me to summarize all the benefits that I have derived from this blog. But since he's asked, I can hardly refuse.

If there is one overarching theme to R Slifkin's approach to Judaism, it's taking reality seriously. We've learned a lot about the history of the universe over the past couple of hundred years, and any attempt at intellectual seriousness requires an honest appraisal of these findings.

What is often underappreciated by those in the rejectionist camp is that the scientific endeavor is long past simply positing theories regarding the past; it can in fact reliably make predictions as to what we can expect to discover across a huge range of fields. R. Slifkin stands for an Orthodoxy that can make sense of this without simply positing “Last Thursdayism”, whereas his opponents provide us with few, if any, tools for doing so. To take one small example, the revolution in deciphering ancient DNA over the past decade, led by (among others) R. Avi Weiss's nephew David Reich of Harvard, has been simply breathtaking. We're finally learning when and where different sub-species of human interbred and we are now able to paint an increasingly granular picture of how homo sapiens spread across the globe over the last sixty thousand years. While perhaps not without its difficulties, R. Slifkin's approach allows for an integration of this knowledge into one's outlook. Conversely, from what I've seen, his opponents have almost nothing useful to say about the astonishing mosaic, with all of its predictive value, that these scientific breakthroughs have painted.

In a more minor key, R. Slifkin’s contributions lie not merely in his non-literal approach to the first chapters of Bereishis, but in providing license to view the terms used in the Torah, such as the “rakia”,  in the context of the worldview of its recipients, without the need to unconvincingly posit that they in fact refer to features of the universe revealed by recent scientific findings.

Furthermore, I've found R. Slifkin’s work in assembling the justifications for maintaining our halachic system without a need to accept Chazal’s factual assessments to be of immense value: a perusal of the (excellent) Talmudology website shows how closely entwined Chazal’s understanding of metzius (in daf after daf of Shas) was with commonly held notions of the time. Simply insisting that this must all be disregarded in favor of a combination of forced explanations and shoulder shrugging does little to move the discussion forward, whereas R. Slifkin tackles these issues head on.

On a rather different tack, R. Slifkin’s sharp critique of Charedi society is useful precisely for reasons not often appreciated by those outside of it. In terms of internal rhetoric, Charedi instructors, at least in the yeshivos I learned in, have little reticence in harshly criticizing other philosophies and communities, whereas those promoting the spiritual advantages of non-Charedi approaches are often far more circumspect in criticizing those to their right. This frequently leaves inquisitive Charedim in a position where they may, for example, find one aspect or another of R. Aharon Lichtenstein’s Torah U’Maddah oeuvre enticing. But when weighing that up against the profound (often substantive) deficiencies of non-Charedi Orthodoxy that they have been conditioned to be immensely sensitive to, they are left with the sense that, when it comes to the advantages of Torah U’Maddah or other virtues of non-Charedi Orthodoxy, the “game’s not worth the candle”. What may often come across as unremitting negativity towards the Charedi world on R. Slifkin’s part is actually a useful counterbalance in illustrating that Charedi approaches have significant societal and spiritual costs as well as benefits, costs that Charedi media and literature are typically rather reticent to discuss.

None of this means that I feel the need to agree with everything R. Slifkin writes, or that I am convinced that he has provided the ultimate resolution to every question he takes on. After all, if rationalist Orthodoxy is to have any pretense of being worthy of its name, it can hardly mandate the belief that one individual has all the answers. But in providing a robust exposition of a coherent and fruitful Orthodox worldview, R. Slifkin does sterling work, day in, day out, and for that I am deeply grateful.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

"In Praise of Rav Chaim"

The following just appeared in the US edition of Yated Ne'eman:
In Praise of Rav Chaim
Opening summer zman for Yerushalayim's Mir yeshiva via conference call, Rav Eliezer Yehuda Finkel spoke to thousands of talmidim about Rav Chaim Kanievsky's greatness and his inimitable guidance of the Torah world during the current crisis.
"Boruch Hashem, the hashgocha has left us nevi'ei emes including the great luminary, the wonder of the generation, the master of the entire Talmud who would be a member of the Sanhedrin if it existed, the prince of Torah whose words are all divrei kabbolah and who has no knowledge of external affairs," he said. "All his words emanate from ruach Hashem and the Torah within him is divrei Elokim chaim vekayomim la'ad."

It's hard to imagine how someone could be so wildly off in describing Rav Chaim, especially after the events of the last two months.

No, Rav Chaim's words do not emanate from Ruach Hashem. That's why he mistakenly made a bracha levatalah on an obvious fraudster pretending to be an African King. That's why he signed a letter attesting to the righteousness of Elior Chen, who was revealed to be one of the worst child abusers in the history of Israel. And that's why he issued the infamously terrible guidance for yeshivos to stay open at the outset of the pandemic, thereby being a factor in the enormous sickness and death toll of the charedi community - according to Aryeh Deri, 70% of all coronavirus cases in Israel. "Inimitable guidance of the Torah world during the current crisis," indeed.

How can the Rosh Yeshivah of Mir make such an absurdly false evaluation? If you look at another mistake that he makes, you can see where he goes wrong. He praises Rav Chaim for having "no knowledge of external affairs." In charedi Daas Torah culture, being completely sheltered from the world is seen as a praiseworthy quality that empowers one with unique wisdom and insight. But in reality, and in traditional Judaism, it's just the opposite.

It's ironic that Rav Finkel claims that Rav Chaim would be a member of the Sanhedrin if it existed. Because exactly the reason for which Rav Finkel sees fit to praise Rav Chaim is the reason why he would not be qualified to be a member of the Sanhedrin. Rambam in Hilchos Sanhedrin 2:1 states that we only appoint to the Sanhedrin scholars who possess broad wisdom, specifying that they must possess knowledge of the sciences and other intellectual disciplines. Ignorance of external affairs is not a basis for guiding the community - it disqualifies one from it.

Woe to the community that has thousands of yeshivah students hearing their Rosh Yeshivah issue such mistaken words about rabbinic leadership.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Ten Times.

The numbers are in. Jerusalem suffered nearly four times the mortality rate of the rest of Israel. Bnei Brak's mortality rate was ten times greater.

It's actually even worse than that. Much of Bnei Brak's population is very young compared to the rest of Israel, and children rarely contract Covid-19. So, if you're an adult in Bnei Brak, the chances of dying from coronavirus were even more than ten times greater than anywhere else.

Or, to put it in the stark terms expressed in the Kikar Shabbos article: There's a lot of people who died simply because they lived in Bnei Brak.

Of course we don't know all the factors responsible for this tragedy, and there are probably several.

But two things are clear.

First is that keeping the yeshivos open, while the rest of the country was shutting down, was a mistake. The Gedolim were wrong, and everyone else was right.

Second is that Torah didn't protect.

The only question remaining is: How many people will learn the appropriate lessons?

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Oh No He Didn't...

Rav Chaim Kanievsky is back in the news. A grandson, Rav Yitzchak Koldotzki, relayed the view of the "Sar HaTorah" about reopening the yeshivos. Rav Chaim said that every effort must be made to reopen them. He added that this must, of course, be in coordination with the Health Ministry. And then Rav Koldotzki added as follows:
"למרות שמגיעות אליו הידיעות שיש מאות נפטרים כאן בארץ, גם צעירים ללא בעיות רקע, בכל אופן אומר רבי חיים שבלי שיפתחו את מוסדות הלימוד אנו נמצאים בסכנה יותר גדולה, כי זה מה שמגן עלינו"
"Although the information has reached him that hundreds have passed away here in Israel, even young people with no prior health problems, nevertheless Rav Chaim said that if the yeshivos are not reopened we are in even greater danger, because this is what protects us."

After Bnei Brak had the highest rate of infection in the entire country, with tragic deaths of both old and young people, he is still claiming that yeshivos protect from coronavirus?!

I would like to reiterate that I don't think that Rav Chaim should be criticized. Based on how he appears in videos, it seems that one can judge him favorably and conclude that he is no longer in full possession of his faculties. What should be criticized is the society that nevertheless elevates him, and others like him, into oracles that should be followed on matter of great importance.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Does Judaism Mandate Magical Thinking?

A number of people asked me to respond to Shaul Magid's article in Tablet, "COVID-19, Haredi Jewry, and ‘Magical’ Thinking." In a nutshell, the article argued that charedi claims about yeshivos protecting from coronavirus were actually more consistent with traditional Judaism than non-charedi skepticism of such claims:
...It is certainly true that Haredi leaders misjudged this pandemic and their constituents have paid a high price. However, the Haredim were “negligent” in part because they actually took seriously religious beliefs that many traditional Jews claim to hold. In other words: They really believe it!
The notion of covenantal reciprocity, that our actions are an answer to a divine command that will evoke divine mercy, runs down the spine of the entire tradition. It does not suggest mitzvot will always protect us as if they are some magical formula; we know this is not the case, as the sages somewhat cynically teach, “there are no rewards for mitzvot in this world.” But this equation is arguably the very operating system of Judaism....
Is this true? Does Judaism necessarily require one to believe that doing mitzvos will result, in some way, in concrete protection from harm in this world?

According to Rambam's rationalist approach to Judaism, the answer is no. Observing the mitzvot is obligatory and beneficial for a number of reasons, but supernatural assistance in this world is not one of them. For a lengthy discussion of Rambam's approach, and how to reconcile it with some seemingly contradictory statements elsewhere in his writings, see the appendix to Menachem Kellner's Maimonides' Confrontation With Mysticism, which you can download here.

But what about traditional, non-rationalist approaches to Judaism? Isn't the approach that "Yeshivos protect from coronavirus" consistent with traditional Judaism?

The answer is still no. Yes, traditional, non-rationalist approaches maintained that God dynamically provides supernatural assistance in this world to those who fulfill His will. But - and this is the crucial point - traditionally, this was rarely seen as a reason to avoid normal worldly endeavor.

When Yaakov went to meet Esav, he prepared with prayer - but also with presents and battle plans. When Moshe chastised the tribes who weren't going to enter the land and share the responsibility of combat - they didn't respond that they will learn Torah instead. When the Sages spoke about the importance of earning a living and teaching one's children a trade, they didn't say that one can learn and rely on God.

To be sure, you can find a number of aggadic statements about the supernatural benefits of studying Torah and performing mitzvos. But these were not taken to be operational practice for society. To say as an abstract religious notion that "Torah protects" was done; to translate this into saying that "we are going to go against medical advice and normal responses to pandemics" was not done.

(There are a number of other things to comment on about Magid's article; perhaps another time.)

Blog Migration!

Birds migrate, butterflies migrate, whales migrate, and this blog is migrating! It's being moved over from Blogger to Substack. The URL ...