Thursday, December 31, 2020

Karate Mussar

I recently watched an amazing mussar series.

Karate isn't exactly my thing. But, like many people who grew up in the 80s, I watched and loved The Karate Kid. The nice kid - awkward, poor and scrawny Daniel Larusso - is bullied by the mean kid; handsome, wealthy jock Johnny Lawrence. But then Daniel learns karate from wise mentor Mr. Miyagi, and defeats Johnny in the All-Valley Karate championships! It was an immensely satisfying tale for teenagers.

Recently a sequel series was made, called Cobra Kai. It features the original actors - Ralph Macchio and William Zabka - and is thus set an astonishing thirty-four years later! But what's really incredible is what they did with the storyline. 

Naturally, Daniel and Johnny are training the next generation. So you'd expect that Daniel, as the hero, is training the good kid, and Johnny, as the bully, is training the bad kid. But the series flips that. Johnny is the one training the good kid, and Daniel the bad kid!

But Cobra Kai goes much further. It spends most of the time presenting things from Johnny's perspective

For thirty-four years, one thing that we've known for sure is that Daniel was the good guy and Johnny was the bad guy. But the sequel flips that on its head. Sure, Johnny is no tzaddik, but he's a sympathetic character. He had a rough home life. He became a bully because he himself was bullied by his stepfather. And his version of what happened back in 1984 is very different from Daniel's version. The way he saw it, Daniel was trying to steal his girlfriend, and often provoked him. 

Since then, after struggling with alcohol and employment problems, Johnny is making a sincere effort to get his life back together, including training bullied kids who need self-confidence. Daniel, meanwhile, has a successful personal and professional life, and is basically a good guy, but is way too smug and vindictive, and not willing to see that Johnny might be a better person than he remembers. 

The mussar lesson here is powerful. First, there's the way in which we can be certain about a person for literally decades, and then turn out to be wrong. Second is how Daniel and Johnny, despite both being basically decent people, are still stuck with their childhood prejudices and are each convinced that the other is awful beyond redemption. The show portrays how each of them views everything that the other does through the lens of their experience as teenagers. Instead of being able to get along as old acquaintances, and to grow together, they keep spiraling downwards due to their conviction that the other is evil and must be taken down.

This is a point that I've been trying to make in this forum for several months now. As a non-American, I have the benefit of a certain detachedness from US politics, like the viewer of Cobra Kai. It makes it possible to see clearly how partisanship and tribalism influence people to interpret everything that the other side does in the worst possible light. I've been trying to encourage people to try to look at things from the perspective of others, but with limited effect. 

The main argument that I use is as follows: If many people that you otherwise regard as basically good people see things so entirely differently from you, then surely there must be some merit in their perspective, even if they are ultimately wrong? I mean, I am sympathetic to why charedim are opposed to IDF service (it's not because they think that Torah protects, it's because it fundamentally threatens their way of life) and I can even understand why the charedi Gedolim banned my books. Surely if tens of millions of people view things very differently from you, including plenty of people from your own background and social circles, then one should try to understand their perspective and not condemn them as utterly foolish/ evil? 

If nothing that I wrote convinces you, then maybe try watching Cobra Kai. 

As 2020 ends, I hope that you appreciate the time that I took to write the many dozens of posts that appeared here this year. It would be nice if you could make a donation to support our work at The Biblical Museum of Natural History, at this link. Failing that (or in addition), please spread the word about our live online tours. Thank you!

Friday, December 25, 2020

Kollel, 1943-2020

As I discussed in my monograph "The Making of Haredim," the modern concept of the kollel began in 1943. There was the Kovno Kollel and others that began in the nineteenth century, but they were rabbinic training schools, with a program lasting three to five years.

In marked contrast to all these was the type of kollel first established by Rav Aharon Kotler in 1943, in Lakewood. There was no time limit placed upon studying there, because its purpose was fundamentally different from all those kollels that preceded it. Its goal was to have the study of Torah being performed “for its own sake,” as per the innovative definition of Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin. The students were specifically not to be preparing for a role in the rabbinate or the wider community. But the wider community was expected to provide financial support for this and similar institutions, based upon the new concept of the innate value of the Torah study.

The ultimate step in the evolution of the kollel, which spread in the latter part of the twentieth century, was its presentation as an expectation of every young man in the charedi community. In more moderate charedi circles in the United States, this is only expected for a year or two following marriage, while in the rest of charedi society in the US and Israel it is expected to continue for at least a decade or two, if not indefinitely. This is enabled by philanthropy in combination with government welfare.

Of course, such a system is not financially viable on a large scale for a long period. But Covid-19 accelerates its crash.

For many months now, unemployment in Israel has been around a shocking 20%, with nearly one million people unemployed. The economic aid is hundreds of billions of shekels, and the pandemic is not even over yet. The government is just not going to have the funds to help the voluntarily unemployed. And with Bibi's days being numbered, the charedim will lose a lot of political power, which is what they need to extract money from the rest of the country.

Meanwhile, the funds being donated by Jews in the Diaspora are also drying up. I'm on a mailing list for nonprofit fundraising and the message is very straightforward and bleak: Crisis. My own fundraising for the Biblical Museum of Natural History - an institution that our donors very much appreciate - has been immensely challenging this year. Most people just don't have the kinds of funds that they used to have. 

I'm not predicting that every kollel is going to immediately shutter its doors. But there is a crisis the likes of which is unprecedented, which will gradually force many people to have to leave kollel and search for a job - in numbers that will (hopefully) force a large-scale charedi rethink of the entire kollel-for-all concept.

But these people leaving kollel will find themselves competing for jobs with hundreds of thousands of others desperate for employment. Tragically, the people leaving kollel and searching for a job have no secular education and not much in the way of marketable skills. The price and suffering will be severe. One can only bemoan the systematic ignoring of Chazal's dictum that parents have the responsibility to educate their children with the ability to earn a living.

As I've been warning for years: the longer this broken system is propped up, the greater the crash when it finally inevitably collapses. Perhaps it's for the best that it's collapsing even sooner than I anticipated.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Mistakes of AntiVaxxers

I came across the following post from a determined anti-vaxxer:

My immediate thought was, what an idiot!

Shafan is a hyrax, not a rabbit!

Joking aside, there are serious mistakes being made here. First is that nobody is being asked to be a guinea-pig/ rabbit/ hyrax. Over a million people have already received the Pfizer vaccine. The guinea-pig stage is over.

Is it possible that the vaccine has unknown long-term harmful effects? Sure, it's possible. But that's not the relevant question. The relevant question is: Given the harm that coronavirus is continuing to cause around the world, would it be better if people took the vaccine? And the answer to that question is certainly yes.

There a further important point to consider. There were some people that were guinea-pigs. They received the very first vaccines. And they chose to be guinea-pigs. It wasn't because they were scared of Covid - they were not in high-risk categories. It was because they recognized that taking this unknown personal risk would be of tremendous benefit to mankind as a whole.

Don't just consider whether the vaccine is good for you. Consider society at large. Most of us don't risk our lives in army service. This is something very simply that we can and should do for the benefit of society.

Monday, December 21, 2020

The Battle for Shechitah

Bad News For The Jews. The EU now permits member states to ban shechitah, in the name of animal welfare. Incredibly, I have seen some traditional Jews express sympathy for this ruling, saying that they can understand it from non-religious perspective. I'd like to explain why this is gravely mistaken.

Some Jewish groups defend shechitah by arguing that it is painless. I don't know if that is true or not. (Some of the "scientific" defense of shechitah seems rather dated and biased. On the other hand, I have seen various quotes from Temple Grandin saying that shechitah can be done without undue pain, and that the main issue is how the animal is treated immediately beforehand.)

But what I do feel is that an alternative strategy should be considered. Because I know of no theological reason why shechitah should necessarily be entirely painless. Furthermore, if you defend shechitah on the grounds that it has "scientifically" been proven painless, then you are effectively conceding that if science proves otherwise, then shechitah should not be done.

Instead, shechitah can be robustly defended on the following grounds: that the small degree of animal suffering is fully justified for religious benefits.

No country in the world rules that no pain may be caused to animals. When there is substantial benefit to humans, all legal systems permit causing pain to animals. Medical experimentation is one example. Farming animals for food usually involves a considerable level of distress to the animals. Modern broiler chickens have been selectively bred to grow as fat and as fast as possible on as little food as possible, but such extreme growth causes skeletal malformation and dysfunction, skin and eye lesions, and congestive heart conditions. chickens, selectively bred to maximize growth and meat yield, endure serious hardship for their entire lives. Egg-laying chickens have their beaks cut off so that they do not attack each other in the crowded conditions under which they are raised, a surgery which is likely to cause acute and chronic pain. The possible suffering of animals in how they die pales into insignificance compared to the suffering of animals in how they live. Yet all this is legal in every country, for human benefit. Belgium - the country at the forefront of the opposition to shechitah - even permits sport hunting!

Given the amount of animal suffering which is perfectly legal in every country in the world, one can only conclude that the targeting of shechitah has less to do with compassion for animals and more to do with hostility to religion.

Shechitah is the only means by which Jews can eat meat. Eating meat is a legitimate activity (animals also eat animals!), and Judaism is an ancient way of life which deserves respect. Even if shechitah does cause some brief pain to animals, it is justified - especially since the suffering is not of long duration. I think that this is ultimately the correct defense (although I will admit that I am not certain if, strategically speaking, it is the best defense to use).

At the same time, this means that the kosher meat industry certainly could improve a lot in terms of how the animals are treated before shechitah. I'm always amazed at how people who are makpid about every minutiae of rabbinic chumra are often entirely unconcerned with the d'Oraisa of tzaar baalei chaim. As Rabbi Aryeh Carmell ztz"l wrote:

It seems doubtful… whether the Torah would sanction “factory farming,” which treats animals as machines, with apparent insensitivity to their natural needs and instincts. (Masterplan, p. 69)

Many halachic authorities are of the opinion that minor benefits and financial benefits, such as those obtained via factory farming, do not warrant causing pain to animals. It is true that the majority opinion is in the other direction. Still, considering that many people are fastidious to meticulously fulfill the laws of kashrus according to all opinions, such punctiliousness should surely also apply to the laws of tzaar baalei chayim. That is to say, since there are opinions which state that financial benefits (such as those enabled through factory farming) do not justify the suffering thereby caused to animals, those who are meticulous to follow all opinions should surely be consistent and refrain from consuming animals farmed in such a manner. 

Rav Eliezer Melamed discusses the topic of hens that are starved in order to then make them enter a new cycle of laying eggs. He quotes none other than Rav Yitzchak Weiss - of Manchester and then of the Edah Charedis - who says that even though there is no technical problem of tzaar baalei chaim here, someone who wants to conduct himself via middas chassidus will refrain from this. 

There should be a "glatt" push for heritage chickens rather than factory chickens. Additionally, they should be working to ensure that farmed animals suffer as little as possible, whether they are farmed for food or fur. Aside from the innate importance and value of that, I'm sure it would assist in the general campaign to defend shechitah. If the Jewish community demonstrated greater sensitivity for animal welfare than the general population, it would be a tremendous kiddush Hashem and a powerful shield against attacks on shechitah.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2020

And Here We Go

Many years ago my wife and I adopted a beautiful custom from one of her teachers. Every Shabbos, we go around the table, and people take turns to relate their highlights of the week. Last Shabbos, everyone thought that my biggest highlight would be that the government finally gave permission for museums to open, albeit with restrictions on the number of visitors. But, while that was obviously a tremendous highlight for me, I was surprised that nobody had mentioned something vastly more amazing: the approval and import of the vaccine! Finally, the end to this horrible pandemic is in sight. We should be dancing from the rooftops!

Many people are, of course, very happy. But many people are also scared, or fired up in anger. They believe that the vaccine is dangerous, and that it is being pushed by Bill Gates and Big Pharma who want to make money at the expense of peoples' lives. Recently there was a car making the rounds in my home town of Ramat Beit Shemesh, with a loudspeaker blaring about how the vaccine is terribly dangerous and must not be taken. Ministry of Health officials met with community leaders in Bnei Brak to convince them to back the national vaccination program, but were unsuccessful.

To what extent is this anti-vaccination a characteristic of the charedi community? Actually, you can find opposition to the vaccine in every sector of the population. You don't have to be charedi to be against the vaccine - but it helps.

There's been a much-publicized pashkevil declaring that the vaccine is highly dangerous and must be avoided at all costs. This Daas Torah is proclaimed in the name of Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky, Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel, Rav Malkiel Kotler and others.

Now, it turns out that this pashkevil appears to be a hoax. A yeshivishe friend of mine pointed to all kinds of indications which reveal that it is not genuine. But do you know what does not reveal it to be a hoax? The notion of these rabbis opposing a vaccine!

As my friend Aqibha Weisinger noted, if such a letter was posted in the name of Rav Hershel Schechter, everyone would know instantly that it was a hoax, because Rav Shechter would never, ever say such a foolish thing. But the same, unfortunately, cannot be said of the charedi Gedolim named in this letter.

Nearly four years ago I wrote a post titled "When Rabbis Quack." In that post I critiqued an anti-rationalist, anti-scientific, anti-medicine book on alternative medicine by Rabbi Rafoel Szmerla, which received glowing approbations from various charedi Gedolim. I warned that such a mindset could lead to people opposing MMR vaccinations. Subsequently I was proved correct when several Gedolim backed a group called "The Vaccine Coalition" which was actually an anti-vaccine coalition. (You can see my coverage of that in a post titled "The Lakewood Suicide Squad.")

It comes as absolutely no surprise to learn that the charedi Gedolim who endorsed Szmerla's book are the same charedi Gedolim who backed the anti-MMR-vaccine coalition, and they are the exact same charedi Gedolim listed in the pashkevil against the coronavirus vaccine.

So the fact that these charedi Gedolim supposedly did not actually write this letter is not so relevant. Even the fact that Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky issued a letter stating that he never said any such thing, and that he recommends that people consult their doctors, is not as effective as it should be. Because the fact is that all these charedi Gedolim have spent years laying the groundwork for their communities to be opposed to vaccinations.

Israel has had 3000 deaths from Covid; the US has had 300,000. (There has also been the incalculable harm to physical and mental health, and the economic loss.) We finally have a chance to bring this to a halt. It is a tragedy that there are renowned charedi Gedolei Torah who are responsible for dragging out this pandemic, resulting in additional harm and deaths. I'm generally quite tolerant of non-rationalism, but there are times when its consequences are just too horrible to bear.

UPDATE: It was just announced that Rav Chaim Kanievsky and Rav Edelstein have announced that people should take the vaccine. But meanwhile, Rav Shmuel Eliezer Stern, one of the leading chassidishe poskim, stated that people should not take it. It will be interesting to see how this plays out; let's hope that this is a case in which the authority wielded by Rav Chaim Kanievsky will have a positive effect.

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Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Dealing With Conspiracy Theorists

I'm surrounded by conspiracy theorists. Literally. Within several hundred feet of my house, in several directions, are vocal conspiracy theorists.

Originally, it was simply funny. When one of them was trying to convince me that diet soda was part of Obama's plan to test toxins, and that you can play people's speech backwards to discern their true intent, and that Michelle Obama is actually a man, it was just pathetically hilarious.

Now, of course, it's much more sinister. Because now it's all about how Covid-19 is a hoax, and there is no reason to take precautions, and the vaccine is a plan by the Evil Not-So-Secret Powermongers to make lots of money while simultaneously reducing the world population.

Today I was forwarded a video on this theme, with the following text appearing at the top of the video: "Bill Gates and Dr. Fauci are paying trillions of dollars to Big Tech to stop this video going viral!" It is just astonishing that people believe this stuff unquestioningly. Trillions of dollars? Really? Gates only has about 100 billion. And he's spending twenty times that amount to suppress harmful videos? And Dr. Fauci, a career physician his entire life, suddenly has trillions of dollars to spend on protecting his secret interests? And out of all the conspiracy material out there, it's this one short stupid video that they are spending all this money to suppress? But it's so appealing for people to think that they're getting to watch something that someone powerful tried to suppress, that it blinds them to questioning whether this, or any of the claims made in the video, are actually true.

Is there any point in arguing with conspiracy theorists? Not really. But it's important for everyone to be aware of the flaws in conspiracy thinking, to prevent them from recruiting more to their ranks. The basic logical flaw in all conspiracy thinking is that it negates Occam's Razor. Conspiracy theories look for the most complicated explanation of events instead of the simplest explanations. But the reality is that most events can be very simply explained by ordinary causes, whereas conspiracies require levels of organization and cooperation which human beings are just not very good at.

And there are all kinds of psychological mechanisms which make conspiracy theories appeal to people. As noted above, it's appealing to think that you have access to "suppressed" or "secret" information. And it can actually be psychologically reassuring to believe that events, including harmful events, are not random or unplanned, but are the calculated result of a plan - even if it being planned by evil forces. And in the modern world of social media and email, it's very easy for people thus inclined to hook up with many other such people to reinforce their attitude.

If nothing else works, perhaps we can point out to people how conspiracy theorists usually flirt with a whole range of conspiracy theories - and many of these involve antisemitism.

Tech Tzorress

It has come to my attention that there is a problem with the mailing system for my blog posts. A number of people have been spontaneously de...