Sunday, August 9, 2020

Torah & Dogmatism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 7, 2020


After years of planning, construction and development, the new home of the Biblical Museum of Natural History was finally able to start receiving visitors this week!

Due to coronavirus and related factors, this is a limited opening; the full official opening is still a while away. For now, group size is limited to twenty people and tours must be booked in advance. Masks must be worn at all times. 

And if you're outside of Israel, don't forget that you can also still book an exclusive live online tour, available for Friends and Patrons of the Museum (see this page to learn more about becoming a Friend or Patron). We can also provide a truly unique arrangement in which the family in Israel experience a physical tour, while the family abroad simultaneously joins the tour via a live streaming connection! 

Call 073-213-1662 or email to book your tour!


Wednesday, August 5, 2020

The Unholy Trinity

After discussing the dangerous, hateful rantings of Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi and Rabbi Yaron Reuven, the topic should not be left without mentioning the third member of this unholy trinity: Rabbi Alon Anava. These three collaborate on various events and productions, and three-hour videos on YouTube. Like Mizrachi and Reuven, Anava has hundreds of hours of lectures, hundreds of thousands of followers on social media, and has distributed hundreds of thousands of CDs and DVDs. He's also on the faculty of a seminary for frum American girls in Tsefat.

Rabbi Alon Anava has some very interesting views.

He has a presentation on YouTube about the New World Order. In this video, Rabbi Anava explains that 9/11 was the work of a global conspiracy, led by the Rothschilds, the Clintons, and other puppet-masters. These secret groups have been functioning since time immemorial, using advanced technology - they built the pyramids to channel demons from the underworld. They are now trying to create a new World Order, which is also why they engineered the Covid pandemic (which makes people vulnerable to being zapped and incinerated by 5G). These figures secretly controlling the world are commonly known to be reptilians in human form, and that's because they are an incarnation of the Primeval Serpent.

Rabbi Anava also explains that the Vatican is connected to this Secret World Order, and they are more evil than you can possibly imagine. The Vatican is secretly a Devil-worshiping cult which sacrifices children. They even arrange with the Israeli Government (because they are also all puppets, controlled by the secret Cabal) to sacrifice children to the Devil in Israel.

Imagine that - a Jew spreading a blood libel against Christians!

I know. It sounds unbelievable that anyone could say such things, or that people would believe it. But you can watch it yourself on YouTube. (I didn't have patience to listen to more than a few minutes of his craziness - the video is three hours long!)

Now, you might be thinking, "Okay, Mizrachi and Reuven are crazy, but this guy is completely off-the-charts insane! How on earth would they associate with him?"

The answer is that Mizrachi and Reuven are also detached from reality. Mizrachi believes that stage magicians are actually performing real magic, and claims that Covid can be cured by firing a hot hair dryer down your throat! And Reuven believes that plants are intelligent, understand English, and get offended if we insult them!

It's a mistake to dismiss all this as harmless nonsense. Such anti-scientific, conspiratorial thinking leads to people acting dangerously with regard to pandemics and vaccinations. And when it's coupled to blood libels - whether it's Anava claiming that the Vatican conspires with Israel to sacrifice children, or Reuven claiming that the Jews really did destroy Germany with greed and perversion - there's no knowing what effects it can unleash. Not to mention Mizrachi and Reuven's endless talk about the violent deaths which heretical rabbis deserve. And these three rabbis have disciples who are even crazier than them - I received hate mail from one of them, who labels himself a "Radical Torah Supremacist," and posts YouTube videos about the evils of heretical Jews and Christians.

I don't believe that such dangerous nonsense should be tolerated.

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Monday, August 3, 2020

How Can The Banned Ban?!

I'm hoping that this will be the last of my posts about the dangerous craziness of Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi and Rabbi Yaron Reuven. There is a loose end to tie up.

Several people have criticized my campaign against Mizrachi and Reuven as being hypocritical. Did I not complain when three of my books were banned? How can I then propose banning someone else?

Some people say that this is too ludicrous an objection to be even worth responding to. But since apparently not everyone realizes all the reasons why this is a flawed and nonsensical argument, I will spell it out.

First of all, I have never had any objection to people condemning and even banning books. On numerous occasions I have said that I don't like it when people automatically side with me merely because my works were banned - how do they know that my books weren't banned with good reason?! If I had truly written dangerous heresy, then the condemnation would have been wholly appropriate! And in fact I even repeatedly stated that to the extent that my books were thought to be dangerous to naive ultra-Orthodox Jews, I was fully sympathetic to efforts to block them from reaching such people!

It was the content of the condemnation which I disputed. I do not believe that it's remotely heretical to say that there was an age of dinosaurs and that there are scientifically incorrect statements in the Talmud. As it happens, I also don't have a problem with people who believe that the universe is only a few thousand years old and the Talmud is scientifically infallible, as long as they don't claim that it's forbidden to take the rationalist approach. I do have a problem with rabbis who say that it is a mitzvah to hate those who take this approach and that they are resha'im who deserve execution. This is entirely consistent with my advocacy of this approach - it's not hypocritical! Similarly, I have a problem with those who say that they would like to kill people who challenge their lectures. And who tell lies to enable antisemitism by broadcasting that Hitler was justified in hating the Jews because their immorality and greed destroyed Germany. 

Thus, to say, "How you can you want to ban someone when you complained about banned?!" is like saying "How can the IDF shoot terrorists when they complain about the terrorists shooting them?!"

In addition, there is a world of difference between a ban and a campaign of condemnation. Those who banned my books did not give reasons why they were heretical; instead, they tried to use their authority to declare that my books were forbidden. In such a case, I (and my mentors) felt that it was procedurally wrong, especially since I had obviously written these books with good intentions and under the guidance of widely respected rabbonim and to great positive impact, whereas the banning rabbis had been given a warped description of me, my books, and the effects of my books. With Reuven, on the other hand, I am not using authority to try to ban him - I don't have any! Nor am I relying on hearsay and agitation from kanno'im. Instead, I am presenting clear evidence as to why he is a menace to society and should not be given legitimacy.

Anyone who think that banning someone as a heretic for quoting Rambam is the same as urging the de-platforming of someone who urges hatred for "heretical" rabbis, declares them worthy of execution, and justifies Hitler's antisemitism, needs their head examining.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly: Some people have utilized this or a similar argument to tell me why they needn't do anything about Mizrachi and Reuven. "You're a hypocrite! You're just a bitter ex-charedi!"

But it's not about me! The campaign against Mizrachi and Reuven is based on what they said, not based on what I say. If some guy yells "Look out, there's a fire!" you don't ignore the fire just because you don't approve of the guy pointing it out!

Of course, given that there are people who are foolishly distracted by the messenger and ignore the message, it would indeed have been better had a more mainstream figure than myself been leading this campaign. Alas, nobody else stepped up to the plate. I've been getting a lot of encouragement behind the scenes from mainstream rabbinic figures, but they do not wish to publicly push the campaign themselves. This is a pity. But it doesn't change the fact that the case should stand on its own merits.

I've presented a lot of very clear video evidence of Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi and Rabbi Yaron Reuven inciting hatred against respected rabbis, speaking repeatedly about how they deserve execution, fomenting a Judaism consisting of violent apocalyptic fantasies, and insisting that Hitler was justified in saying that "the Jews are our misfortune." Anyone who tries to change the subject to talking about my supposed hypocrisy is not only mistaken; they are also responsible for enabling this dangerous madness.

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Sunday, August 2, 2020

When Rabbis Speak "Heresy"

What does one do when a rabbi says or does something deeply religiously problematic?

In numerous videos, Rabbis Yosef Mizrachi and Yaron Reuven have made their approach clear. People should be alerted to the problem. The guilty rabbis should be denounced as heretics and as wicked resha'im. It should be declared that it is a mitzvah to hate them. One must not learn anything at all from them. They should be declared deserving of execution.

I'm involved in a campaign to get Mizrachi and Reuven de-platformed for this (along with Reuven repeatedly publicly endorsing Hitler's reasons for hating Jews). Which includes, especially, Reuven no longer being declared "a rabbi in good standing" with the RAA (Igud HaRabonim). But, as one person connected with the RAA argued to me, rabbis declaring other rabbis to be heretical is hardly new. Is there really something novel about what Mizrachi and Reuven are doing?

The answer is yes, what Mizrachi and Reuven are doing is indeed novel. And wrong. And dangerous. And while for those who are seeking to be tolerant of diverse approaches, "novel and wrong" is not necessarily enough reason to de-platform them, "dangerous" is (or should) most certainly be adequate reason.

Historically, there have been numerous cases of rabbis saying things that others considered deeply religiously problematic. Traditionally, however, the Jewish and rabbinic community generally looked at the Big Picture. Exactly how religiously problematic and dangerous is the doctrine? What is the net effect of this rabbi on Judaism? Depending on the answers to these questions, the offending statements or actions might be overlooked. And even if, after this analysis, the offensive statements are worth condemning, this too is done proportionately.

With Mizrachi and Reuven, on other hand, they go to a crazy extreme. If they don't like a statement that a rabbi has made, or an action of his, they don't just consider it wrong - they rate it as absolute heresy. And they say that this negates everything else about the rabbi. And that it turns him into a wicked a person who must be hated and rated as a rasha to the extent that they are declared deserving of violent punishment and execution.

Rambam introduced vastly more radical theology than the rabbis on the "blacklist," for which there was a good deal of opposition - and yet Ramban (who was vehemently opposed to parts of Rambam's theology) successfully convinced others to let it go. And one of the most zealous crusades in Jewish history, that of Rav Yaakov Emden against Rav Yonasan Eybeshutz (where the central charge is likely correct!) is not held up as a model to be emulated. The accomplishments of these "heretics" and their general benefit to the Jewish people means that their problematic statements are either to be proportionately criticized, disregarded as non-threatening, or even overlooked.

Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis is the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom. This follows an immensely successful career as rabbi of several synagogues. He has created schools and community kollels and education programs that reached many thousands of people, along with the extraordinary "Shabbat UK" project.

Why do Mizrachi and Reuven condemn such an outstanding rabbinic leader as an evil heretic worthy of execution? Because he also said that while the Torah prohibits homosexuality, there should no bullying of LGBT+ people in Jewish schools, and worked with a pro-LGBT group to produce a guidance booklet for teens. Now, people might object to this and see it as a quasi-legitimization of Torah prohibitions. But when he explicitly states that these are nevertheless Torah prohibitions, is it really appropriate to denounce him as "a heretic, a hater of Torah, a cancer"?!

There's another justification that Reuven gives for his attacks on Rabbi Mirvis. In an interview about mental health, Rabbi Mirvis said that there should be no stigma about mental health challenges, and named several Biblical figures, such as King David, who suffered from them. Now, King David is revered as one of the greatest Jews in history. The normative approach of countless rabbinic authorities was to justify David's actions with Batsheva. Chazal explicitly stated that "anyone who thinks that King David sinned is making a mistake." And yet, Abarbanel says that David sinned grievously, with the crimes of murder and adultery!

Which is worse - having mental health challenges, or being an adulterer and murderer? Obviously, the latter. And yet, nobody declares Abarbanel to be a rasha and heretic whose every work must be destroyed. Why? Because, even for those who find his statements about King David to be deeply objectionable, the statements are not actual heresy. And they look at the Big Picture. Abarbanel is a respected authority who authored thousands of pages of commentary. You don't entirely negate him for a single problematic idea!

Rabbi Daniel Korobkin and Rabbi Efrem Goldberg are prominent rabbinic leaders of huge communities and are highly respected community rabbis. During their illustrious careers, Rabbi Korobkin had an interfaith dialogue session with an Imam, and Rabbi Goldberg invited a Christian motivational speaker. Sure, some might object to this. But according to Mizrachi and Reuven, it's not merely objectionable; it means that they are wicked heretics who deserve execution! And Rabbi Korobkin's session that was hosted and advertised by the RCA. Which according to Mizrachi and Reuven's logic, means that the RCA are also wicked heretics. It's endless!

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom for twenty years. He is the ambassador of the Jewish people to governments and leaders worldwide - and is astoundingly good at it. Anyone politically savvy knows how blessed our nation is to have such a gem. And the reach of his profound writings and lectures is incalculable. He is the author of over twenty bestselling works on Judaism, as well as translations of the siddur and machzorim.

Twenty years ago, one of his books included a radical claim that Judaism does not have a monopoly on spiritual truth. This was harshly opposed by certain rabbis, and Rabbi Sacks was summoned to a meeting with the Beis Din of my home town of Manchester. It so happens that this idea has more support in traditional Judaism than is commonly assumed, though Rabbi Sacks went far beyond any previous formulation. And Rabbi Sacks rewrote the offending passages in the subsequent edition. No other Orthodox rabbi in the world (with the exception of the Mexican lunatic Isaac Betech) sees fit to maintain a campaign against Rabbi Sacks, one of the most prestigious and impactful rabbis in the world, due to a few retracted paragraphs written twenty years ago. But for Mizrachi and Reuven, this minor aspect of his career is enough to repeatedly mock him and denounce him as an evil heretic who deserves to be stoned to death!

Another crime of both Rabbi Sacks and myself was to argue for a non-literal approach to Creation. But even the most zealous of the charedi Gedolim who condemned my work didn't come close to making the kind of statements about me that Mizrachi and Reuven make! Reuven seeks to justify his tirade against me by invoking Rav Elyashiv; but Rav Elyashiv didn't engage in the kind of speech that Reuven does! And with good reason - they knew that (A) these approaches were presented by distinguished rabbinic authorities in our history, and (B) at the end of the day, such approaches are not actual heresy, and certainly don't render their advocates as worthy of the death penalty!

And while the "crimes" of Rabbi Sacks and Rabbi Mirvis and Rabbi Korobkin and Rabbi Goldberg are a tiny aspect of their work, the crusading against such "heresy" isn't a small aspect of the Mizrachi/ Reuven approach. It's something that they push again and again and again as a fundamental religious duty. And just as these two are recent returnees of Judaism, with no real scholarly credentials, but claiming legitimacy as crusaders against evil, likewise they inspire other ignorant people to attain Jewish value by denouncing and hating others.

Still, even after all this, a person could argue that Mizrachi and Reuven should not be de-platformed. If we are saying that people should be tolerant of opinions to which they strongly object, then shouldn't we likewise be tolerant of Mizrachi and Reuven?

The answer to that is that Mizrachi and Reuven are not merely objectionable. They pose a clear and present danger to the community.

In the Mizrachi/Reuven approach, someone whom they have rated as a heretic is not merely declared to be treife; they speak about how the people must be actively hated and are liable for the death penalty. Mizrachi says that he would like to throw them head-first through a window. And anyone who defends and/or associates with these "heretics" is likewise to be hated and declared equally evil and worthy of violence and execution.

We've seen where this leads in Israel, where the overly heated rhetoric in the Ponovehz yeshivah led to pipe bombs and riots in the yeshivah, and the Rav Shmuel Auerbach feud led to an unstable individual breaking into an elderly rabbi's home and beating him up. And those incidents were due to an isolated area of disagreement; Mizrachi and Reuven are creating a whole religion based on hatred. Reuven's Tisha B'Av video, titled "Stop Hating Each Other," was mostly about why the 14 rabbis on Mizrachi's blacklist are reshaim that people have to hate!

Reuven is Mizrachi's protege, and takes his mentor's craziness even further. What's the next level of craziness going to be? It's not like the zealous rabbis of history, who were teaching their own small group of disciples. Mizrachi and Reuven share their incitement on YouTube and Facebook, reaching hundreds of thousands of people of all types, including the most unstable individuals. Mizrachi has already described, on more than one occasion, how certain followers of his would like to commit violence against those that he has targeted. Are we just waiting for it to happen? And then will we claim that we couldn't have seen it coming, that we couldn't have done anything about it?

The zealotry and violent rhetoric of Mizrachi and Reuven is not merely "just more rabbis squabbling." It's a dangerous usage of modern technology to spread a new approach to Judaism of mass-scale violent fantasies, delegitimization and incitement to violence. It must be stopped.

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Torah & Dogmatism

"Torah & Rationalism" (Feldheim 2020) is the title of a new book consisting of collected writings of Rabbi Dr. Aaron Chaim Zim...