Thursday, November 26, 2020

Why I Can Never Be A True Rationalist

At the start of the millennium, I was in a pretty low place, in a variety of ways. I had recently been tasked by a certain outreach organization with the mission to research the topic of proving the Divinity of the Torah from the camel, the hare and the hyrax. This was in order to refute various objections that were being thrown at them from people who claimed that the topic actually disproved rather than proved the Torah's divinity. Much to my surprise and great dismay, I discovered that the objections were partially correct, and that while the topic could not be used to disprove the Divinity of Torah, it also couldn't be used to prove it. I was devastated.

Then, I was further shaken when certain (but not all) outreach organizations reacted with great hostility to my presenting them with my final report. Feeling the heat, I tried to ensure that my report would not reach anyone beyond those organizations. And then I was further distressed to find that one of my confidential correspondents had sent it to several further people. All this put me in a state of abject funk.

Meanwhile, in my personal life, things were also going badly. Nearly all my friends had long gotten married, but despite having gone out with many dozens of girls, I was still single. I was a rather out-of-the-box type of yeshivah student, and I had been scarred by certain dating experiences, and frankly, I was at a point when I thought that I would never get married.

Then, one day, I was contacted by one of the people to whom my "Camel, Hare & Hyrax" report had been leaked, Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein. He said that he liked it very much, and he was coming to Israel, and would like to meet me. After we met, he told me that I should go out with a former student of his from Los Angeles. 

There's not many connections between Mancunians and Los Angelinos, but I discovered that my neighbor, a very insightful psychologist who knew me extremely well, also knew this girl. I asked her if she thought it would be a good match, and she said that she didn't "see it" at all. Manchester and Los Angeles are not just geographically very far apart; they are also culturally very far apart. But I decided to go out with her anyway.

Twenty years ago today, Tali Samson and I got married.

Anyone who knows me from both before and after I got married knows that getting married is the best thing that ever happened to me, in all kinds of ways. My wife, a psychotherapist, is a truly wonderful person who exists to make the world a better place. Virtually every good thing that I have received or achieved is directly or indirectly as a result of getting married to her. My wife and I have been blessed with five wonderful children. We've faced challenges together and gotten through them.

The hyrax, which caused me so much grief, turned out to be the conduit via which I received so much blessing. It's probably not very rationalist of me to believe that I merited exceptional personal divine providence (Rambam and others did not generally believe in such personalized providence, and contemporary rationalists would dismiss it as perceiving significance where none exists), but I just can't help how I feel. I thank Hashem every day for what I consider to be one of the Great Miracles of the 21st century. May He continue to bestow blessings upon us.


(If you'd like to take this opportunity to make a donation to the Biblical Museum of Natural History, you can do so at this link!)

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Too Outrageous To Be True?

Here are advertisements for two events. One is outrageous and is merely a satire of the other, which is outrageous and is actually taking place. Can you guess which is which? Of course you can, because there's only one type of gaslighting which is socially acceptable.

Please share the latter with whoever might be seeing the former.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

The Extremists At Both Ends

I just made a largely futile attempt to make peace between two people. They have a lot in common, and deep down they love each other, but they fell out about something. Each was convinced that the other person was acting absolutely terribly. It was deeply frustrating to me that neither was trying to see the situation from other person's perspective. But I shouldn't have been surprised; it was just a microcosm of what is happening to society in general, at least in the US.

As a Brit living in Israel, I had the luxury of not having to decide who to vote for in the US elections. Nor do I take much interest in the domestic affairs of the US. I was able to somewhat detachedly observe the strengths and weaknesses of both sides. Which, of course, instantly put me at odds with the vast majority of Americans, who only see strengths in their own side and only weaknesses in the other, due to the enormous psychological power of confirmation bias.

I didn't think that the divisions in the US could get any more extreme. But I was wrong.

On the one hand, you have a CNN anchor comparing the actions of Trump to the start of the Nazi Holocaust (fortunately, she has since apologized). And I got into an argument with someone who insisted that everyone is obligated to hate every single one of the 69 million people who voted for Trump, with no forgiveness ever (if they don't repent). There was absolutely no willingness to be open to the possibility that there could be good people who sincerely believe that Trump and the associated Republican party is overall beneficial for the US (or less bad than the alternative).

At the other end of the spectrum is Trump himself, destroying the 240-year-old legacy of both Democrats and Republicans in trying to tear apart the country rather than concede defeat. And some of his supporters have very strange beliefs. I got into an argument with someone who shared a photo of Trump with the description, "Loving Dad, Husband, Greatest President Donald Trump." I'm not going to get into an argument with someone about whether Trump is a good president (I'm too distant to make such evaluations), but what on earth would lead someone to say that he is a "loving husband"?! Are they unaware that he divorced his first two wives, and has actually bragged about multiple extra-marital affairs? The eventual response was that he is an amazing president and Biden is awful. Which only strengthened my objection: Why would his actions as a president mean that he is necessarily a loving husband?!

It seems that the ultimate manifestation of tribalism is that not only is "your guy" the best person to serve as president; he is the best person, period. He is a perfect person in every respect. I saw someone else write that he is "a truly selfless great man, who hides it so well." (Indeed, he hides it amazingly well!) He is someone to be lionized and idolized. (And there are others who idolize him in most bizarre ways.)

It is crucial for everyone to learn about how Confirmation Bias shapes both your thoughts and those of other people (so that you don't condemn them as evil or insane). It is crucial to learn about the power of tribalism over both your psyche and that of others. The alternative is for society to tear itself apart.

(Cue: comments from people saying that as a non-American I just don't get it, because it's obvious that the other side is just totally evil.)


See too this post: The Black And White Problem

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

How To Be A Frum Criminal

In March 2001, FBI agents raided Kiryas Joel, rounding up 14 suspects on suspicion of a string of financial crimes. Members of the group had falsified social security numbers and used the details to fraudulently obtain tax refunds, life insurance payments, and bank loans. Chief among them was Mordechai Samet, who was convicted on 33 counts of racketeering, money laundering, and fraud that netted about $5.5 million dollars. He was finally released a few weeks ago, after spending twenty years in prison.

Mishpacha magazine just published a feature story on "Reb" Mordechai Samet. When I started reading it, I was initially sickened. The article portrays him as an inspirational man on a mission to teach powerful messages about emunah and bitachon. I began to feel a strong sense of deja vu. It was reminiscent of how the yeshivish community, with few protests, lauded Shalom Rubashkin, the "Baal HaNes," as a heroic martyr, and a baal bitachon par excellence. Yet, to quote Rav Hershel Shechter's comments on Rubashkin, "It's scandalous - the man is a criminal... [but] they're turning him into the next Lubavitcher rebbe!" Rubashkin never speaks about having done anything wrong or about the need to be law-abiding - and in fact, claims to have been the victim of libel. His message is only about his heroic ability to trust in Hashem to help him with his plight - never about his mistakes and wrongdoings that got him there in the first place.

But I was pleasantly surprised to see that the article about Samet reflects a very different approach, in two highly significant ways. 

First is that, unlike with Rubashkin, Samet is not only out to teach people about bitachon, but also to urge them to stay away from white-collar crime. Although not adequately stressing the immorality and dishonesty of it, he does stress the foolishness of attempting it, and the chillul Hashem that it causes.

Second is that, at the very end of the article, it becomes clear that Samet is not giving the distorted bitachon message of Rubashkin. As I wrote last year, emunah and bitachon means that Hashem is in charge of our livelihoods; and the practical ramification of such a belief is that there is nothing to be gained by engaging in dishonest activity. The only speech about emunah and bitachon that Shalom Mordechai Rubashkin should be giving is about how he didn't have it, and suffered as a result. Fortunately, Samet makes precisely this point:

In retrospect, Samet admits that if he’d had the wellsprings of bitachon and emunah that he developed and built up during his long years in prison, he would never have gotten into the whole dangerous and dubious enterprise that entangled him so badly.

“Anyone who has strong emunah knows that HaKadosh Baruch Hu provides parnassah to all — from the tiniest creations to the largest ones — without a person needing to employ questionable methods, and especially when those actions are against the law,” Samet says today. “No tricks. And it’s not only because I sat in prison for nearly two decades, but because HaKadosh Baruch Hu says not to do these things. And our job is to make a kiddush Hashem in This World and not, chalilah, the opposite.

“Ultimately, we don’t gain anything and we pay a heavy price. I suffered so much, I caused so much heartache and pain to myself and others. I ask my children forgiveness because they had to suffer so much because of my lack of caution. I ask mechilah from my wife, a tzadeikes, who waited for me all these years. Today, I hope and pray that my sins have been atoned for, and that, as Hashem promises, my transgressions have turned to merits. But please, no one should take the path I did to get there.”

What a refreshing different message to hear!

There's one more very significant point in the Mishpacha article, though I fear not enough people will notice the significance of it. It explains that Samet was not a shrewd con-man out to make a killing, but rather someone simply trying to make ends meet: 

“I never aspired to be rich,” he said in his prison interview. “All I wanted to do was scrape by, pay tuition, mortgage, kehillah dues, and make bar mitzvahs and weddings without needing to accept charity. 

And there we have a perfect illustration of the truth of Chazal's words, and the terrible failure of the charedi community for determinedly ignoring them:

"Whoever does not teach his son a trade... it is as though he has taught him to steal." (Kiddushin 29a)


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Saturday, November 7, 2020

A Giant Among Rabbis

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has passed away.

The loss is absolutely incalculable. Rabbi Sacks was only 72, and still had so much to give. I do not believe that it is an exaggeration to say that he was one of the most important rabbis of our generation. I don't mean that he was the greatest Talmudist or the greatest halachic authority or had the most disciples. I mean that in terms of teaching Judaism, and furthering the national interests of the Jewish People, his accomplishments, qualities and influence were unmatched. He was a leader and teacher and ambassador for the Jewish People in the path of great figures in our history such as Hasdai Ibn Shaprut, Rambam, and Ramban.

It was nearly thirty years ago in 1991, when he was appointed Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, that I (and many others) first heard of him. Back then, I was living in Manchester, and he came to speak on several occasions. He was a masterful orator, and it was clear that his appointment to this prestigious position was superbly appropriate.

Being Chief Rabbi of the UK is not an easy position. It requires delicate maneuvering between diverse communities, including charedim, traditional Orthodox, and non-Orthodox sectors, as well as representing the Jewish community to the outside world. It's impossible to do so without ruffling any feathers, but Rabbi Sacks managed to ruffle very, very few. He spoke at my ultra-charedi former yeshivah, Shaarei Torah, and to non-Jewish audiences with more than a few people who harbored antisemitic attitudes. How many rabbis would be able to speak to both audiences?!

Rabbi Sacks promoted and defended Orthodox Judaism with dignity. He was knighted and appointed to the House of Lords. He was the ambassador of the Jewish people to governments and leaders worldwide - and was amazingly good at it. England is rife with distaste for Jews, but Rabbi Sacks earned enormous great respect. He had great dislike for getting involved with politics, and so when he made a rare exception to criticize Jeremy Corbyn, it had important impact.

Rabbi Sacks authored twenty-five bestselling works on Judaism, as well as translations of the siddur and machzorim. His books are not mere vortlach - they are profound insights, reflective of deep thought. This past Sukkot, I read his essay on Kohelet in Ceremony and Celebration, and it blew me away in how it tied together all the themes of Sukkot with incredible perspectives on human nature. It boggles the mind that he was able to produce so much material of such high quality. 

One of Rabbi Sacks' lesser-known but highly important works is his brilliant essay, "Creativity and Innovation in Halakhah," published in the critically important Orthodox Forum publication Rabbinic Authority and Personal Autonomy (Aaronson 1992). The essay attests to his profound understanding of the halachic process and its application to modern society. I very much hope that it will be made available online, but meanwhile, here is the penultimate paragraph: 

"To my mind the most serious issues confronting contemporary halakhah is not lack of creativity, but the sociological divorce between the centers of pesak - nowadays, largely the yeshivot - and the centers of congregational life. Pesak involves applying Torah in its unchanging totality to Jewish life in its present specificity. A law-interpreter, no less than a law-maker, must have a clear objective understanding of the lives he is called on to instruct. R. Joshua once suggested that Rabban Gamliel's capacity to lead the Jewish community was compromised by his ignorance of the economic conditions in which they lived (Berakhot 28a). The same surely would be true of a posek who was ignorant of their intellectual and cultural circumstances."

On a personal note, I was privileged to spend Pesach together with Rabbi Sacks a few years ago. (Note that his rabbinic beach-wear was much more respectable than mine!). He was incredibly gracious; he was telling my wife about how bad he feels for wives who have to suffer their husband's books being banned, and he added that if we are ever feeling down, we should just write to him and he will call and offer whatever chizzuk he can! He also graciously recorded a blessing for the Biblical Museum of Natural History

Rabbi Sacks' sudden passing from cancer came as a great shock, but it was actually not the first time that he battled this illness. Here is an extract from an article about Rabbi Sacks by Yair Rosenberg that was published in Tablet magazine, several years ago:

"Though he seldom mentions it, Sacks battled cancer twice, once in his 30s, and later in his 50s. Yet unlike many other rabbis and scholars of religion, from Rabbi David Wolpe to James Kugel, who incorporated their bouts with cancer into their theological reflections, Sacks makes no reference to it in his voluminous output. I asked why.

“It’s very simple,” he said. “I saw my late father in his 80s go through four, five major operations. This was not cancer, it was hip replacements and those things. And when you have operations in your 80s, they sap your strength. He got weaker and weaker as the decade passed. He was walking on crutches at my induction—he was alive for my induction, and that was very important to me.”

“Now, my late father, alav ha-shalom, didn’t have much Jewish education, but he had enormous emunah [faith],” Sacks continued. “I used to watch him saying Tehillim in the hospital, and I could see him getting stronger. It seemed to me that his mental attitude was ‘I’m leaving this to Hashem. If he sees that it’s time for me to go, then it’s time for me to go. And if he still needs me to do things here, he’ll look after me.’”

“And I adopted exactly that attitude. So on both occasions I felt, if this is the time Hashem needs me up there, thank you very much indeed for my time down here; I’ve enjoyed every day and feel very blessed. And if he wants me to stay and there’s still work for me to do, then he is going to be part of the refu’ah [healing] and I put my trust in him. So there was no test of faith at any point—just these simple moments at which to say, ‘b’yado afkid ruchi’ [‘In his hand, I place my soul’]. That was my thought. And since we say that every day in Adon Olam, I didn’t feel the need to write a book about it. It was for me not a theological dilemma at all.”

“I had faith,” said Sacks, “full stop.”

Our nation was blessed to have had such a rare gem. Rabbi Sacks' many works will be inspiring and educating both Jews and non-Jews for centuries to come. He will be sorely missed. 

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Monday, November 2, 2020

Know Your Brain

Modern science has revealed some extremely valuable, albeit somewhat upsetting, truths about the human brain. Many, many experiments have conclusively proved that our brains work far less rationally than we think they do.

For example, a famous experiment showed that, under the right circumstances, someone can dress up in a gorilla costume, walk right into your field of vision, jump up and down and beat their chest, and you won't even see them. All it takes is the right kind of mental distraction. (This has important ramifications; it means that nobody can ever be certain that they wouldn't forget their baby in the car, and it is incumbent on all young parents to implement some sort of automated checking system.)

It's also been repeatedly proven that you can be 100% certain that you saw something which you couldn't possibly have seen. Millions of people are certain that they saw Tom Cruise jump up and down on Oprah's couch, declaring his love for Katie Holmes. But it never happened. Similarly, in a survey of people's responses as to where they were when they heard about 9/11, it turned out that many people completely (but with certainty) misremembered.

There are many other ways in which our minds do not work as well as we believe them to. Several have been discussed in two fascinating books, The Invisible Gorilla and Predictably Irrational. One of the most pernicious of these inbuilt human mental flaws is Confirmation Bias. This refers to how we search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports our preexisting bias. 

In one experiment at Stanford, students were divided into two groups according to whether they believed that capital punishment does or does not discourage crime. Each group was given two sets of scientific papers, one set of which brought evidence that capital punishment does discourage crime, and one set of which brought evidence that it doesn't have such an effect. (Unbeknownst to the students, both sets of papers were fabricated for the purpose of the experiment, and were equal in the strength of the "evidence" that they offered.) When questioned, the students who were originally in favor of capital punishment being effective found the papers to that effect to be much more convincing, and were even strengthened in their belief. Whereas the students who were originally of the view that capital punishment does not help, found the papers to that effect much more convincing, and were strengthened in their belief.

In the modern era of mass media and social media, we are bombarded with thousands of reports and articles and perspectives, and we choose which ones we rate as convincing. We might think that we are being objective, but it is very likely that we are simply succumbing to Confirmation Bias. We search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports our preexisting bias.

Of course, not everyone is equally subject to Confirmation Bias. While we are all vulnerable to a certain degree, there are those who are less affected, and those who are more affected. How can you tell if you are particularly affected? I think that there is pretty straightforward way to know, at least with regard to elections.

Elections are (frequently) binary choices between two people. However, these binary choices are between two people with a large number of associated people, who differ in a thousand ways, with a million different ramifications. And many of these ramifications can have long-term effects which cannot be predicted with any certainty, and may even have conflicting effects. To be sure, it is possible that one of these choices is overall vastly superior to the other. But with such a staggering array of factors, what are the odds that every single one of them fits neatly into the same binary column of what is good and bad?

So if you believe that every single article, every report, every argument, in favor of your preferred candidate is convincing, and every single article, report and argument in favor of the other guy is not at all convincing; if you believe that there is every reason to vote for your guy and not a single reason to vote for the other guy; if you believe that anyone who votes for the other guy is absolutely, irredeemably stupid or evil - then it is overwhelmingly likely that you suffer from severe Confirmation Bias.

(And there may turn out to be some further evidence to convince you. If you suffer from severe Confirmation Bias, you probably also believe that the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of your candidate winning by a substantial majority. In the eventuality that your candidate fails to do so, you will have clear evidence that you indeed suffer from Confirmation Bias. And you can extrapolate from that that all your deep certainty that the Other Guy is absolutely utterly terrible, is probably likewise not so well-founded.)

It's also helpful to realize that other people suffer from confirmation bias, too; and therefore the reason why they are voting in a way that seems entirely incomprehensible to you is not because they are absolutely evil or utterly stupid, but rather because they had a certain inclination in a certain direction regarding certain aspects of person or policy difference, and interpreted everything else in light of that.

We are all human, and we are thus all flawed. But at least we have the capacity to learn about our flaws, and to be aware of them. That is the first step to compensating for them.

Forget Ye and Fuentes, We Have Our Own Hitler Enthusiast

People are rightly up in arms about Kanye West's enthusiasm for Hitler and Trump's refusal to denounce Fuentes. The actions of both ...