Sunday, January 31, 2021

A Ban on Rationalism vs. Mysticism?

Some people have asked me whether I'm afraid that my new book Rationalism vs. Mysticism will be banned. After all, it's vastly more controversial than my three previously banned books. The Table of Contents (which you can see on this page) reveals certain discussions that are completely unacceptable for many charedi Gedolei Torah, but the content of some innocently-titled chapters - in particular, "The Nature of Torah" - is even more heretical (from their perspective) and damaging to their worldview.

So am I afraid that it will be banned? This is a good question with a complicated answer. I'm going to respond in several posts. One will discuss the reasons why it might be banned, and another will discuss the reasons why it might not banned. In this post, I will explain why, whatever happens, I am not afraid - and how everything is completely different from sixteen years ago. 

When three of my books were banned (and you can see all the documentation linked at this page), I was utterly devastated. It was an immensely upsetting time for me (and for my wife and family), and I was desperate to make it go away. I'm going to discuss all the ways in which the notorious cherem of 16 years ago harmed and hurt me, and why that wouldn't happen today. 

1. Fear That I've Actually Done Something Wrong

Contrary to many people's image of me as an immensely self-assured, arrogant person, I'm actually constantly hounded by self-doubt. Moreover, whenever I do something wrong, I'm absolutely plagued by guilt. When the original ban happened, I was tormented by the fact that maybe I had indeed published something that was deeply religiously problematic. Every day, I would ask myself, "What if the Gedolim are right?" 16 years on, I am much more confident in the positions that I present. It's like how most of us are perfectly confident in stating definitively that the earth is a sphere, despite the growing numbers of people who claim otherwise.

2. Awe of Great Rabbis

Back then, I really did revere the charedi Gedolim as being both great theologians and rabbinic leaders. It was greatly upsetting to me to see how they condemned me. I was even wondering whether I would just have to defer to their authority. These days, of course, I am fully aware of how they are embedded in an anti-rationalist worldview, with no serious understanding of the rationalist approach and its legitimacy. I'm perfectly happy for them to voice their denial of the rationalist approach; it just further confirms the thesis of my book.

3. Overwhelming Criticism and Attack

It wasn't just the Gedolim's condemnations that were upsetting. There were endless people writing articles and internet posts and comments against me, along with hate mail to my inbox. One or two people even yelled at me in public. Of course, there were even more people writing about me and to me in support (including plenty of rabbonim in the charedi world), but that didn't cancel out the criticisms and condemnations. Yet that experience itself toughened me, and sixteen years later it just wouldn't bother me anywhere near as much, if at all.

4. Slander 

One of the most sharply painful aspects of the original controversy was the personal slander that was issued against me; specifically, Rabbi Moshe Meiselman claiming that I had been thrown out of yeshiva in England for bad behavior, as well as falsifying the contents of my books. At the time, I wanted to simply sue him for libel. But, in a rare piece of bad guidance that I was given by my rabbinic mentors, I was urged not to, due to it looking bad that I would be going to secular courts. Nowadays, I would have no such concerns about taking legal action against slander - because even in the charedi world, when people want to right a wrong that can't be solved by Beis Din, they go to court.

5. Social Ostracization 

While the Rav of my shul at the time, Rav Chaim Malinowitz ztz"l, was a tremendous fortress of strength and support for me, the same was not true of everyone in my wider community. One shteeble at which I davenned during the week threw me out, later allowed me back, but after my father's passing would not let me be shaliach tzibbur (the person responsible recently apologized). Nowadays, I need fear no such repercussions from the shuls and communities and people with which I mix.

6. Loss of Income

One of the practical ramifications of the initial controversy was a certain loss of income. A seminary that I was teaching at was forced by Rav Moshe Shapiro to fire me. My books were selling better than ever (there's no such thing as bad publicity), but Feldheim was forced to stop distributing them (for which they deserve no blame at all). Today, I'm not worried about being fired from the Biblical Museum of Natural History, because I run the place! And my book distribution is independently controlled. As for harm to the museum - back when I was running the museum in its original location in Beit Shemesh, we were working closely with a very charedi person on the city council, a devoted follower of the Gedolim and fierce opponent of those who challenge their authority. Somebody went and told him all about what a rasha I am. Nothing happened; he continued working with us. We've had tens of thousands of charedi visitors, and they've all seen for themselves that there is nothing remotely problematic with the museum. I'm not even involved with giving tours for such groups, and we take pains to stay away from any controversial topics. Everyone can see what a tremendous asset the museum is for the charedi community, and anyone trying to harm that due to my non-museum work would face ridicule and opposition.

7. Anxiety at Being the Center of a Public Scandal

As a 29-year-old with little self-confidence, it was simply overwhelming to be at the center of such a controversy. There were endless editorials and articles being printed against me in the charedi press, and public letters being issued. It reached all the newspapers, including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. It took over every aspect of my life for a year and a half. Sixteen years later, I've better learned how to handle being a public figure.

8. Betrayal by Friends

Probably the most upsetting aspect of the controversy, for both me and my wife, was how certain friends turned on me and publicly condemned me. These were friends who were older than me, with established careers in chinnuch, and who felt that they had to demonstrate their allegiance to the Daas Torah in general and Rav Moshe Shapiro in particular. (Only one of them was honest and brave enough to later publicly issue a sincere apology.) Sixteen years later, my friends are people of much greater integrity, Torah knowledge, and self-confidence, and I know that they would never act in such a way.

So, those are the reasons why although the events of sixteen years ago were immensely painful, I'm not afraid of such a thing happening again. But will it happen again? The arguments for and against such an eventuality will be the subject of future posts. 



Friday, January 29, 2021

Making a Mockery of Rabbinic Leadership

And now things heat up even further, this time in an unusual way. The satirical television show Eretz Nehederet ran a skit featuring actors impersonating Rav Chaim Kanievsky along with his grandson Yanki. Many people in the charedi community (along with certain figures in the National-Religious community) are in uproar. Moshe Gafni, head of Degel HaTorah, declared that the producers should "burn in hell."

Now, the first thing to point out is that when the charedi community makes its elderly sages into political leaders, it cannot expect that they will receive immunity from political satire. And this is especially the case when these political leaders push policies that are strongly opposed by the majority of the population, and even more so when these political leader sometimes defy government regulations and instruct their followers to do likewise! Seriously, how can anyone possibly expect these rabbinic political leaders to be immune from criticism and satire?

But what about the actual content of the skit itself? It turns out that however shameful it was, the responsibility for that shame does not lie with the producers of Eretz Nehederet.

The core "humor" of the skit was that of a brash young man manipulating his elderly, utterly out-of-touch grandfather into making irresponsible pronouncements with enormous consequences, and doing so with impunity because of the reverence and voting bloc that he wields. 

But that is indeed the appalling reality of the situation!

Over the years, I've seen a lot of accusations and condemnations of people (including myself) for "mocking the Gedolim." In some cases there is indeed inappropriate mockery, either by people who do not care to truly understand a situation, or by people who just enjoy making fun of everything. In other cases, it's appropriate criticism. 

Yet then there are other condemnations which are intriguing and strange. On more than one occasion, I have been accused of "mocking" or "attacking" rabbonim simply for accurately reporting their statements! What's actually happening in these cases is that people are deeply embarrassed or uncomfortable with certain statements from these revered rabbis, but because they can't possibly admit this (even to themselves), they shoot the messenger instead.

Yes, Rav Kanievsky is a very elderly person who is utterly out of touch with the world (which is something in which the Charedi community takes pride). Yes, he is manipulated by his grandson. Yes, he does issue irresponsible pronouncements with enormous consequences - whether defending abusers because other people did or telling his followers to disregard Covid precautions. Yes, he does do so with impunity, due to the irrational reverence of the charedi community for his statements, and the voting bloc that he thereby wields. And the same is largely true for many other leaders of the charedi community.

The situation with the "leadership" of the charedi Gedolim is a national tragedy. The notion that communal decisions are being made by Rav Chaim Kanievsky and others like him - elderly, isolated Talmudists with no real grasp of communal issues and who are being manipulated by people of poor character - does not just go against traditionally preferred models of Jewish leadership; it's a joke with tragic consequences. Anyone who contributes to the myth of such leadership is responsible for the harm and embarrassment that it causes. 

Yes, a mockery was made of rabbinic leadership - but not by Eretz Nehederet. There could never have been such a skit mocking Chief Rabbi Sacks. Because respect for his rabbinic leadership was not something that others demanded for him - it was something that he earned.

 

Further reading:

Mishpacha, Gedolim and Decisions

The Slander of Mockery

Reporting Rabbis Badly

On Being Mevazeh the Gedolim


* Buy Rationalism vs. Mysticism: Schisms in Traditional Jewish Thought at this link *

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

It's Here! Rationalism Vs. Mysticism is out!

Mazal tov! After many years' work, Rationalism vs. Mysticism: Schisms in Traditional Jewish Thought has finally come off the press.

There is no question in my mind that this is the most important book that I have ever written. It won't be as popular as The Challenge Of Creation or The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom, but in terms of clarifying important matters of Jewish thought, it far eclipses them in significance.

You can buy it online at the museum website using this link, where you can also see the table of contents. Please note that for books sold on the museum website, every cent goes directly to supporting the museum. (And so please buy it directly from the museum website rather than elsewhere!)

As for shipping... well, it will take a while. The book literally just came off the press, and it has to get by ship to our US distribution office. And as far as Israel orders are concerned, the mail service here is currently disastrous. We are happy to mail the books out, but we will also be arranging pick-up points in various places, which will be much faster. (And, of course, the book can be collected from the Biblical Museum of Natural History, as well as from my home.) But we'll certainly get it to you before Amazon can!

Meanwhile, those who order the book will receive an invitation to an exclusive event, an online book launch via Zoom. The date of the event is still to be determined, but it will probably be soon, so order your copy now!


Tuesday, January 26, 2021

The Amazing Manna Segulah

"Manna manna"
Were you inundated today with emails about the amazing segulah of saying parashas ha-man, shnayim Mikra v'echod Targum, because it is Tuesday of the week of parashas Beshalach? I was.

It's quite bizarre. Here is something that was allegedly proposed by a single chassidishe rebbe, R. Menachem Mendel of Rimanov, two hundred years ago (though he never even put it in writing; it is only an oral tradition). All of a sudden, it is considered to be something that all Jews should do! (Though you don't even need to say it yourself - the Gedolim say that you can pay others to do it for you, for even better results!) This is especially odd in light of the fact that this is entirely inconsistent with the approach of the Mishnah Berurah, surely a much more mainstream work, as we shall see. (I am indebted to Rabbi Josh Waxman of the excellent Parshablog, from whose post on this topic much of the following was taken, with his permission.)

Some claim that the source for this is the Yerushalmi, but that's not quite accurate. The given source says כל האומר פרשת המן מובטח לו שלא יתמעטו מזונותיו, "Whoever recites parashas ha-man, is assured that his sustenance will not decrease." Early sources, such as Seder Rav Amram Gaon, explained that it was recited every day, along with korbanos and a host of other things. However, he says, only select people do so; most do not, because they are too busy working! To quote:
זה המנהג הנכון לנהג היחידים אנשי מעשה. והצבור אין נוהגין כן, שלא יתבטל איש איש ממלאכתו אשר המה עושים, ומקצרין ואומר אחר סיום, קדיש. חזק.

This brings to mind the saying attributed to the Satmar Rebbe, that the segulah of saying parashas ha-man only works until 8:59am; after that, the segulah is to go to work!

Meanwhile, the Mishnah Berurah gives an interesting explanation of the daily recital of parashas ha-man:

פרשת העקידה - קודם פרשת הקרבנות. ויכול לומר פרשת העקידה ופרשת המן אפילו בשבת. ואין די באמירה אלא שיתבונן מה שהוא אומר ויכיר נפלאות ד' וכן מה שאמרו בגמרא כל האומר תהלה לדוד ג' פעמים בכל יום מובטח לו שהוא בן עוה"ב ג"כ באופן זה. וטעם לאמירת כ"ז כי פרשת עקידה כדי לזכור זכות אבות בכל יום וגם כדי להכניע יצרו כמו שמסר יצחק נפשו ופרשת המן כדי שיאמין שכל מזונותיו באין בהשגחה פרטית וכדכתיב המרבה לא העדיף והממעיט לא החסיר להורות שאין ריבוי ההשתדלות מועיל מאומה ואיתא בירושלמי ברכות כל האומר פרשת המן מובטח לו שלא יתמעטו מזונותיו ועשרת הדברות כדי שיזכור בכל יום מעמד הר סיני ויתחזק אמונתו בה' ופרשת הקרבנות דאמרינן במנחות זאת תורת החטאת כל העוסק בתורת חטאת כאלו הקריב חטאת וכו':
משנה ברורה סימן א ס"ק יג
 "The parsha of the Binding {of Yitzchak} -- before the parsha of the sacrifices. And one is able to say the parsha of the Binding and the parsha of the Manna even on Shabbat. And it is not sufficient with mere saying, but rather he must understand what he is saying and and recognize the wonders of Hashem. And so too that which they say in the Gemara that anyone who says Ashrei three times every day is guaranteed that he will be a resident of the world to come, in this manner {that is, not an incantation, but understanding and appreciating this}. And the reason for the saying of all this is as follows: the parsha of the Binding is in order to recall the merit of the forefathers every day, and also to humble his yetzer, just as Yitzchak was moser nefesh. And the parsha of the Manna is such that he will believe that all his food {/livelihood} comes through special Divine direction {hashgacha pratis}, as it is written {and understood midrashically} "and the one who took more did not end up with more and the one who took less did not end up with less," to teach that increasing effort does not help at all. And it is found in Yerushalmi Berachot that anyone who says the parsha of the Manna {others have here: every day} he is guaranteed that his livelihood will not decrease. And the {saying of the} Ten Commandments is in order to recall every day the standing by Mt. Sinai, and his faith in Hashem will be strengthened. And {the reason for reciting} the parsha of the sacrifices is because of what we say in Menachot: "Zot Torat HaChatat -- Anyone who engages in the {learning of} Torah of the Chatat is as if he sacrificed a Chatat {sin offering}, etc."
Thus, this is not a magic incantation, but rather a mechanism by which one realizes certain facts about the world and reinforces his emuna. The repercussions of such an internalization of these ideas will be all these great things. Note too that none of these sources speak about reciting it shnayim Mikra v'echod Targum. The recital of parshat HaMan once a year, on a specific day, shnayim Mikra v'echod Targum, is a mystical innovation that is completely at odds with the Mishna Berura's explanation. Furthermore, according to the Mishnah Berurah's explanation, it is pointless to pay other people to say it for you.

But can any of this reconcile with Rambam's rationalist approach? That will have to be the topic of another post. Meanwhile, with regard to the nature of the manna itself, see the post Manna and Maimonides.

Stay tuned for a very important post coming up soon! You can subscribe to this blog via email using the form on the right of this page. (Don't forget to look for the confirmation email in your inbox - it might go to the spam folder.)

Monday, January 25, 2021

A "Charedi" Intifada?

Last night launched what some media outlets are calling "a Charedi Intifada." The videos are absolutely shocking (you can watch them on Yeshiva World News). In Bnei Brak, Beit Shemesh and Jerusalem, certain charedim launched violent riots. They set fires, they vandalized trains, they burned a bus and destroyed it, they even tried pouring cement onto the light rail tracks (which, had they succeeded, would have caused derailment and Heaven knows how much loss of life). 

All this was in response to the police beginning to respond more seriously to violations of Covid restrictions. These take place in parts of the charedi community on a much more serious scale than in the rest of the country, with the official encouragement of their rabbinic leaders. The results have been catastrophic, and so far there has been little enforcement in the charedi community (the charedi community represent 40% of the infections, but have only been receiving 2% of the fines).

To what extent can last night's events legitimately be described as a "charedi intifada"? It must be stated from the outset that not only were most Israeli charedim not involved in last night's events, they were disgusted by them. It is therefore misleading and even defamatory to consider it as representing mainstream charedi society. Likewise, with regard to the infractions of Covid restrictions which launched the police action in the first place, there is a distinct difference between various charedi groups and one cannot issue generalizations. There is a certain part of the charedi world (such as most chassidic sects and the Peleg Litvishe sect) who oppose any attempts to change their way of life, and there are plenty of other charedim who want to end the pandemic and are taking the necessary precautions.

Still, it is also not accurate when people claim that last night's riots are just the work of teenage hoodlums who are not at all representative or symptomatic of the charedi world. This takes us back to the same issues that we have discussed previously, regarding such phenomena as the violence in my home town of Beit Shemesh, the appalling near-lynch of a formerly charedi soldier in Mea She'arim, and last year's Charedi Day Of Rage.

There is a continuous spectrum of lack of loyalty to the State which exists throughout the charedi world. Furthermore, while the people at each level do not agree with the level of hostility coming from people to their right, there is near-constant refusal to condemn it. And even people who are horrified by the violence nonetheless produce inflamed rhetoric which creates an atmosphere that allows it and contributes to it.

Each of these groups does not approve of the actions of those on their right. But, with rare exceptions, they will never condemn them. Sometimes this is because they are afraid of not appearing frum/ right wing enough, and sometimes it is because they see it as more important not to break ranks with other charedim than to condemn violence.

As long as matters are this way, non-charedim are correct to consider events such as the attempted lynch in Mea Shearim as a charedi problem. The problem is not the attackers, per se; it is that the attackers are part of a larger community which exudes hostility and ingratitude to the IDF and its advocates at every level and which almost never condemns verbal and physical violence from the right. 

Now, last night's riots are different from cases such as the Mea Shearim lynch and the Beit Shemesh violence, where the rest of the charedi community showed little interest in denouncing it. In the current case, there are many voices in the charedi community denouncing both the neglect of Covid restrictions and the riots against the enforcement of them. 

Still, there is not the same level of mainstream charedi condemnation as there has been against other things. And the mayor of Bnei Brak, together with other chareidi rabbinic leaders, are being just as vocal in their condemnation of the police as they are regarding the rioters. (Yes, the Israel police can be brutal, but the reason why they need to take action is that the charedi leadership doesn't care enough about Covid precautions.) 

Furthermore, while some prominent charedi leaders are condemning the violence, there has not been anywhere near sufficient condemnation of the neglect of Covid precautions which led to the police actions in the first place. The "House of Kanievsky" may make public proclamations about observing precautions, but on the quiet they ignore them and give permission to principals to open their schools. And it is the mainstream charedi politicians who are working to stop the government raising fines for Covid infractions.

But there is another reason why to completely disavow any charedi aspect of last night's "Intifada" is incorrect. As with the Mea Shearim events, the people that rioted last night do not exist in a vacuum. They are the naturally-resulting extreme fringe of a society which cares little about its responsibilities to wider society, about obedience to civil law, and which almost never condemns civil crimes, verbal and physical violence from the right.

And there's another factor, too. When you try to force an entire society into a mold which is unsuitable for many, many youths, with no option of military service and no outlet for leisure and physical activities, the inevitable result is that some of them will find inappropriate outlets for their energy.

You reap what you sow.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

The Indicator

How can you tell if your political views are all well-founded, or if you are subject to hyper-partisanship, enormous Confirmation Bias, and tribalism? Well, if you're Jewish, a new test just arrived!

The following meme is being shared by a number of people in the Jewish community:

Now, these things might be quibbled by Democrats, but can certainly be pointed to by Jewish Republicans as good reasons to be opposed to Biden and yearn for the days of Trump. But there's one item in this list that most certainly does not belong. Did you notice it?

It's the third item, invading Syria. This is something that Jews are against?! While Trump did many things that are good for Israel (at least from a right-wing perspective) - defending Israel at the UN, moving the embassy and thereby exposing the sham that it would "blow up the Middle East," taking action against Iran, encouraging the Abraham Accords - one significant action that was absolutely terrible for Israel was Trump's withdrawal from Syria. It weakened Israel along with its allies, and massively strengthened its enemies. If Biden were to be reversing this decision by Trump, it would be something to tremendously welcome!

As it happens, unfortunately it does not appear to be true that Biden "invaded Syria." All that occurred was that a large US military convoy entered to provide some support for the Kurds, which routinely happens. Unfortunately, we probably cannot expect Biden to reverse this terribly harmful act by Trump - he is unlikely to pursue policies in the Middle East that are beneficial for Israel.

So, for anyone who values Israel's security, appreciating this meme (and sharing it without any disclaimer) just shows that they are so consumed by their tribalist, hyper-partisan love of Trump and hatred of Biden, that they can't even recognize when Trump did something bad for their own side and won't acknowledge even good things that Biden does. It should serve as a wake-up call. Will it?

UPDATE: Judging from the initial comments on the post, the answer is no! All that happens is that they make a 180 degree turn from the position that they took during the Obama years, when they protested that Obama was not invading Syria quickly enough, and they are now either happy to say that the entirety of Israel's defense establishment was wrong in being upset about Trump's withdrawal, or that they no longer desire America to send troops to do things in Israel's interests. The most important thing is to never, ever acknowledge any shortcoming with Trump or praise Biden for anything at all. Surprise!

 

See too this post: Know Your Brain

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Friday, January 22, 2021

Scientific Ignorance or Anti-Influence?

This morning I had decided to write a post modifying some of what I wrote two days ago in my post "So, Why DO Chassidim Disregard Covid?" One person had pointed out the following salient points:

You didn't mention that chasidim are primed and prepared for accepting misinformation such as "anti-mask science" and the idea that covid regulations are specifically targeting religious groups. Magical thinking, conspiratorial thinking, scapegoating, blamelessness--these are woven in to the fabric of the stories and teachings that form these cultures.

In addition, I was speaking to a cousin who in turn has cousins in deep Israel chassidic society, who are suffering greatly through countless levayos, and shiva visits that bring on even more levayos. It seems that they are in such an utterly pre-modern society that they genuinely do not see any connection between ignoring precautions and contracting Covid.

On the other hand, from the Litvishe side of things, a disturbing comment came in that further confirmed the thrust of my post:

I am an Avreich who learns in a big Charedi Yeshivah in Yerushalayim. I was diagnosed with Corona this week and am currently in Bidud. The Yeshivah I belong to continued throughout this current lockdown as if usual, with busloads of Avreichim coming in everyday and no efforts as social distancing enforced or encouraged in the Yeshivah. At the moment there are very few Avreichim who have not contracted Covid over the past couple of months - I was one of the last, meaning that there is very little incentive for the Yeshivah to close anyways even if they wanted to. I was very reluctant to go into the Yeshivah last week due to the situation and the lockdown, however the fact that my Chavrusas and Chaburah were functioning as normal meant that I felt like I was missing out and bucking the trend to stay at home when everyone else was continuing as usual. In retrospect the situation is crazy and almost unbelievable, in the Yeshiva Covid is non-existent asides from the odd missing Avreich who is recovering from Covid and the signs on displayed on the notice boards asking us to daven. I am embarrassed and ashamed to be even considered part of such an institution and I wish I had the courage to stay home and buck the trend. Indeed, I can testify that everything written in this article (my Yeshivah is in Meah Shearim) is 100% true https://www.jpost.com/opinion/haredi-autonomy-is-killing-israel-with-covid-19-656279.
I have thought long and hard as to the rationale and justification behind ignoring Covid - and whilst on the surface the people around me justify it because of the price of Torah learning that clearly isn't the real reasoning, or at least for 99% of the community, rather I also came to the same conclusion along the lines of Rabbi Slifkin that it is a general attitude of ignoring all attempts to influence their way of life. The insular Charedi community has morphed into a crazy and sick almost idol-worshipping habitat which values insularity over anything else. It will cling on to its way of life all the stronger if threatened by something like Covid - what drives them is not the desire to do G-d's Will but rather the desire to push back against any attempts to influence their way of life - that is idol worship. Whilst on an individual basis I value the community greatly there is so much good and the insularity is fantastic in building a true Torah lifestyle. However, on a community level it has led to these types of terrible atrocities and Chillul Hashem.

The Jerusalem Post editorial that he links to, Haredi autonomy needs to stop so Israel can beat COVID-19, is a must-read.

I must add that there are undoubtedly many people in charedi society who are just as upset about all this as is this avreich. The question is whether they are a small minority, a significant minority, or even a silent majority.


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Thursday, January 21, 2021

Flawed Leaders and their Devoted Followers

Many readers have written to me over the years to express their appreciation for my posts about how certain people blindly follow those that they revere as Gedolim, failing to see the flaws in their leadership, no matter what the consequences. These readers see it as being very important to try to dissuade people adhering to a tribalist, cult-like mentality in which they refuse to be open to the possibility that their leaders could be flawed and that their chosen ideological movement might have its problems, and in which dissidents are persecuted as heretics. 

The strange thing is that some of these readers seem completely unaware that this is also true of them.

Last week, I criticized Trump's role in causing the Capitol riot and the harm to US democracy. It's not so much due to any particular sentence that he said at the rally; rather, it's the cumulative effect of months of riling up his devotees that the election would be, and was, "rigged" and "stolen" by terrible people who want to destroy America, and that they must do something about it (and all because he's simply incapable of ever acknowledging that he could lose at something). Uttering a few sentences about how "we will peacefully protest" are rather beside the point. It's like standing in a crowded theater and screaming "A deadly fire has broken out! It will kill us all if we don't get out in time! Will everyone please proceed calmly to the exit!"

In response, some readers went apoplectic. "He didn't do anything wrong!" "It was Antifa!" "But BLM!" "But the Democrats!" Some went even further, accusing me of being an ingrate for all the good that Trump has done (which is a very strange charge; Jewish tradition has always maintained that even great people can do wrong and are called out for it). And some issued the ultimate disqualification: "You're a leftist!"

The last criticism is particularly fascinating. I'm not American, but I know of many, many Americans who are right-wing Republicans, who voted for Trump and even campaigned for him and in some cases were even hired by him, yet who are nevertheless highly critical of him for his role in the Capitol riot. We're talking about people such as White House Director of Communication Alyssa Farah and Nikki Haley. It's just absurd to condemn anyone criticizing Trump for this as being a "leftist."

But I guess it's like those who condemn people disobeying the rulings of charedi Gedolim as being heretics. When you're single-minded in your devotion to a person or a cause, you can't be open to any criticism at all, no matter how legitimate. The strange thing is how some people can recognize this problem in others, but not in themselves.

Here's a way to figure out whether you suffer from this problem. Do you get outraged when people criticize your leader? Do you attempt to utterly disqualify those who issue criticisms? Are you able to acknowledge the problems with your chosen "team" and the strengths of the opposition?

I've lost some supporters and donors due to these types of posts. But my mission involves encouraging people to be a little more open-minded, to be nuanced thinkers, to avoid black-and-white conceptions. I might be naive, but I hope that people can recognize where how they might need to grow in this area.


Coming soon: A very special announcement! If you'd like to subscribe to this blog via email, use the form on the right of the page, or send me an email and I will add you.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

So, Why DO Chassidim Disregard Covid?

In the previous two posts, I critiqued the massive crowded indoor maskless Bobov wedding. This is just one example of how Chassidim (and, to a more limited extent, many Litvishe charedim), utterly disregard Covid precautions. The consequences of this are sickness and death, not to mention economic hardship and backlash against their own communities. Given all this, there is an obvious question to be asked (yet which not enough people did ask): Why do they do it?

As I've stressed many times in this forum, people can be mistaken and wrong, but they are not generally crazy or evil. If large numbers of people are acting in a certain way, there must be an explanation for it. And it's important to know what that is, for several reasons. One is precisely to avoid seeing large numbers of people as evil. The second is that it's very difficult to change people's behavior, and easy to waste time on futile strategies, if you have no idea why they do what they do. I'm not going to engage in apologetics, but rather a sincere effort to understand and explain this very disturbing phenomenon.

Let me begin by rejecting some mistaken explanations for why chassidim and some charedim disregard Covid. It has virtually nothing to do with a belief that Torah and prayer and mitzvos protect them from it. That may be true for a rare individual like Rav Chaim Kanievsky, but not for the average person. People just don't really believe that and it's not what drives their behavior. They are also well aware of the many righteous Torah scholars who have died from Covid.

I've heard it claimed that as a community which is largely ignorant of (and dismissive towards) modern science, the chassidim just don't see any connection between their disregard of all health precautions and the Covid infections that they suffer. I find this difficult to accept. They do understand the concept of infection. They also generally have a high regard for doctors. Still, there is truth to the observation that the chassidic (and to some extent general charedi) community has not internalized the modern concern for general health, preventative medicine and safety precautions. But that's not the main explanation here.

It seems to me, and others that I've discussed it with, that there is another set of factors at work here. First of all, one must bear in mind that, just like with the modern phenomenon of mass kollel, it's not as though there was a planned strategy of how to respond to Covid. There was no council of chassidic rabbis and organizers debating what their community response should be. Rather, it occurred organically. 

Covid is a contagion. Aside from vaccines, which only recently arrived and are a whole separate discussion, the main way to fight it is to avoid large indoor gatherings. Now, large indoor gatherings are fundamental to charedi and especially chassidic communities to a degree that the rest of us cannot even begin to grasp. The yeshivos and the shuls are the primary focus of people's lives, and keep them in the safety of religious frameworks and away from the threats of internet and so on. Enormous weddings are a modern phenomenon, but they have taken on tremendous importance in chassidic communities. (And in a community where people have large families in crowded apartments without Netflix, keeping children in cheder and yeshiva is not just an educational priority, it's what stands in the way of insanity!)

So the strategies for fighting Covid would exact an enormous toll on the charedi way of life. And if there's one thing that charedim are good at - much better than Modern Orthodox and Dati-Leumi Jews - it's identifying threats to their way of life. To put it another way, someone reported the following statement by a charedi person: "If we need to stop being Chareidim to beat Corona, what are we fighting the disease for?" No, fighting Covid doesn't really force them to stop being charedi, but it causes enough of a challenge that it's understandable that they see it that way.

But there's more. For charedim in general and chassidim in particular, identifying and fighting against threats to their way of life forms a major part of their identity. As I described in my monographs on the Novelty of Orthodoxy and the Making Of Charedim, reacting against the modern world is the driving force in their society. They'll do it even when there is no particular innate reason, because of the benefits that Fighting In The Resistance brings to reinforcing their identity. As a charedi leader in Israel once said, "If the government tells us to learn Bava Kama, we'll learn Bava Metzia!" 

And so when a pandemic hits, the choices facing chassidim are as follows. They can cause tremendous harm to their way of life. Or, they can once again be heroes who are fighting against the goyim that are trying (for whatever reason) to cause tremendous harm to Yiddishkeit. It's a no-brainer.

What about the sickness and death that they suffer as a result - to a far greater degree than non-charedim? Well, they see that as an unfortunate but worthwhile price to pay, just as every society is willing to sacrifice lives for its greater values, whether wars or fast transportation. Besides, while attending funerals isn't fun, it gives an opportunity to cry about Divine punishments for bittul Torah and pritzus and Hashem's inscrutable ways, all of which further strengthen their identity. Getting into a fight with non-charedim and non-Jews about what they are doing further feeds in to their life's meaning. And they certainly don't care about the harm that they cause beyond their community.

That's why even something as simple and seemingly religiously harmless as wearing masks is a problem for many (though certainly not all) chassidim. There's a War to Save Yiddishkeit. You don't concede anything to the other side. You davka maintain your way of life in every way against attempts to change it.

So, what can be done about such a situation? Unfortunately, just like with the much more serious problem of charedim avoiding secular education and joining the professional workforce, not much. Dramatic and enforced legislation is very difficult to pull off when dealing with hundreds of thousands of people. And since they are a large voter bloc with simple demands, there's a big incentive for politicians to play along (which is why Bibi always wants charedim in his coalition).

Short-term solutions are difficult. In the long term, the only thing that can work is encouraging a societal change in which they learn that not everything and everyone in the outside world is to be shunned and feared. That's something which, when I'm not writing this blog, I put a lot of effort into.


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Tuesday, January 19, 2021

The Chassidic Wedding Murders

What a wedding!

Yes, the enormous Bobov murder wedding took place last night in New York - the one that they pretended would not be taking place. They managed to conceal the illegal event from the police. Hooray!

Many thousands of guests were present, including people from Israel and London. While other people all around the world are limiting their events and mourning their losses, there was no indication at this wedding that anything is wrong in the world. Everyone was singing and dancing, and, of course, nobody was wearing masks; after all, masks are for goyim. These are holy people, who won't eat fish together with meat due to the danger, and won't hold weddings during Sefiras Ha'Omer because of a plague thousands of years ago!

With the festivities over, the guests will be returning to their homes around the world, presumably not quarantining (since laws are for goyim), and spreading all the Covid variants that they picked up at the wedding. This in turn will spread sickness, death, and economic hardship. Ah, what a zechus!

A number of people complained about my previous post, in which I protested this event. Some said that I shouldn't be criticizing the chassidim when there are so many others who flout the restrictions. There are several important responses to be made to this.

First is that, as I wrote yesterday but they apparently ignored, the wedding was many orders of magnitude more dangerous than all the other restriction-flouting activities. The cumulative effect of crowding thousands of people, including guests from abroad, indoors, maskless, while singing, is vastly more dangerous than anything else. Other events may or may not transfer the virus; this event is guaranteed to.

Second is that other situations of rule-flouting are done by individuals making decisions out of personal desire. This, on the other hand, was a community event, directed by community rabbinic leaders. They formally arranged this lethal, illegal event, along with the lies to cover it up. The only people who can't see a world of difference between the two are the sort of extreme tribalists who likewise can't (or won't) see a difference between random hoodlums looting during a BLM protest and a president inciting an insurrection.

Another type of counter-claim was that the chassidim are all immune anyway, since they've been crowding together all year and they've all already had Covid. But this is simply not true. Not every Bobover chassid has had Covid - yet every chassid felt pressured to come. And the new strains of Covid are much more contagious and could infect even those who had the original strain many months ago (which is exactly what happened in Stamford Hill, London, where the chassidic community believed themselves to have formed herd immunity, and then recently suffered many casualties). And the presence of international guests means that the new strains of Covid get spread to different countries and communities. Furthermore, the statistics from Israel are very clear: the sickness and mortality rate in the charedi communities is many times higher than in the rest of the country (in comparable age groups). Finally, it's just absurd to justify such a decision being made without the input of medical professionals. And it doesn't address the chillul Hashem aspect, nor the illegality and lying involved.

There are those who object to others making a fuss about what chassidim do. Dudi Zilbershlag, a prominent chassidic media personality in Israel, said that everyone should keep the rules, but nobody should make a fuss about others who break them. This is an exceptionally strange argument. Without even getting onto the notion of Kol Yisrael areivim zeh lazeh, there is simple self-interest involved. This is not 19th century Europe; the chassidim do not live in a bubble. Most of us have been very severely affected by the pandemic, in one way or another. Of course we are upset and angry when a major chassidic sect defiantly holds a super-spreader event which will have enormous ramifications on our own lives!

Astonishingly, one person wrote to me that by bringing attention to such a wedding, I am inciting antisemitism and strengthening myths about Jews spreading plague. As I replied to him, if he's concerned about inciting antisemitism, he should be trying to stop Jews spreading plague at weddings, not the people trying to prevent such crimes.

Some felt that "murder" was too strong a term. I've stated my opposition to referring to anti-vaxxers as murderers. But in this case, where death is a very likely result of such an event, I believe that it is an appropriate term. And I'm not the only person to feel that way - there are prominent people in the charedi world saying the same. Avi Mimron, lead broadcaster on the Bnei Brak radio station Kol Chai, just gave a fiery tirade about how charedim who disregard the risks are "murderers who should flee to Arei Miklat." Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, the famous charedi former anti-Zionist militant turned national hero, recently suffered the loss of his mother to Covid. In a blistering condemnation of certain elements of the charedi rabbinic leadership, he referred to them as being guilty of bloodshed.

Bobov are not the only chassid sects holding crowded weddings. Another one took place in Bnei Brak this week. Here's a riddle: What do you call an Israeli policeman who tries to save lives by breaking up a dangerous crowded Chassidic wedding? Answer: A Nazi!

So, bottom line, what do we do about all the communities which simply couldn't care less about how their actions perpetuate the pandemic? Especially since, from their perspective, they are being moser nefesh to defend their precious, fragile way of life from threats by the virus and by the goyim. I'm not sure what the answer is, but I suspect that, as usual, the only direct path to influence is via the money.

 

In the next post, I shall address a very important and obvious question about this event that hardly anyone is asking. If you'd like to subscribe to this blog via email, use the form on the right of the page, or send me an email and I will add you.

 

Monday, January 18, 2021

Mazeltov! Murder Tonight.

Over the months since the lethal pandemic started, it's been studied intensively. There's still a lot that we don't know, or which is disputed. And the laws and regulations don't always reflect the scientific reality. (Not to mention that it's difficult to respect them when they are selectively enforced, or when important political figures flout them.)

But one thing has been well established: the major factor in transmission is airflow. Airflow itself in turn depends on various factors. The biggest factor by far is whether one is indoors or outdoors. Another factor is what people are doing; when people speak or sing loudly, they produce dramatically larger numbers of micron-sized particles compared to when they use a normal voice - even more than during coughing. 

So, going to the beach involves very little risk. At the other end of the spectrum, having masses of people crowded into a building, singing at the tops of their voices, is not just illegal; it's about the most dangerous thing you can do.

And that's exactly what Bobov is doing tonight.

It's the wedding of the Rebbe's youngest son. Mazeltov! A tremendous simcha for the chassidim of Bobov. And so they've been gathering from all over the world for this momentous occasion. 

As the original report details, arranging this wedding has presented an enormous logistical challenge. After all, there is a lethal global pandemic, and in the US it's illegal to hold such an event. But, nothing less than the best will do for such a momentous occasion! So, they spent a lot of effort finding a venue where they can crowd all the thousands of guests, without the authorities finding out. The location is being guarded as a tight secret until just before the wedding. And all the chassidim have been warned "a thousand times" not to take any photos during the event, so as not to get Bobov in trouble.

An article posted online this morning spelled all this out in great detail. Since I first put this post out a few hours ago, it's been changed. It now claims that the wedding will be very small and all the thousands of chassidim will be celebrating at home! But the original is available in a cached version, and I took a screenshot to display here. 

Now, it is true that every society takes risks for things that it deems extremely important. Global society allows car travel at speeds over thirty miles per hour. Religious Zionist society encourages people to live in somewhat dangerous places. And the wedding of the Rebbe's youngest son is extremely important to Bobov.

On the other hand, this is not a tiny risk. Such an event will certainly result in mass Covid-19 transmission and very likely in death. Furthermore, by gathering chassidim from all over the world, it's going to spread all the different strains of Covid. (Bear in mindtoo that this is not a bunch of disconnected people making personal decisions - this is a centrally-planned event, approved by the Rebbe himself.) And if you've created a society where mass transmission of a deadly virus and the near-certain loss of life, not to mention breaking the law in a major way and causing immense chillul Hashem and damage to all religious Jewry, is all justified by celebrating a wedding, then, well, maybe your society has its priorities all wrong.

Of course, the usual readers of this website are not going to be attending the wedding. But they already changed the news report as a result of my post going out, so maybe they will realize that the cat is out of the bag and they need to cancel it. And maybe we should think about this event when we support various sects of Chassidus.


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Sunday, January 17, 2021

Guest Post: Why You Should Take The Vaccine

A few months ago, there was understandable hesitancy about taking the Covid vaccine. After all, had it really been tested properly? What are the potential short-term and long-term side effects? Besides, who's to say that you'll catch Covid anyway?

Several months later, things are very different. The vaccine has already been given to many millions of people. Whereas millions have died from Covid, there are at most one or two debatable deaths from from the vaccine. There are negligible short-term effects and no reason to believe that there are any long-term side effects. 

Meanwhile, the chances of catching Covid have gone up immeasurably with the new, more contagious variants. And the long-term effects of Covid, even for those who recover, are now known to be much more serious, including nerve damage and severe lung damage. As one surgeon has said, "There is no long-term implication of a vaccine that could ever be as bad as the long-term implications of Covid."

And yet, people are still irrationally afraid, and spreading conspiracy theories. The Arutz-7 website, popular because of its national-religious orientation, has been especially guilty of this. Its latest missive is an anti-vaccination article, titled "This Is Not A Vaccine," by a "Health and Wellness Counselor" which superficially looks impressive (it has lots of endnotes!). 

With lives at stake, it's important for this to be refuted by authoritative voices - and for people to realize that they should be listening to authoritative voices, not "wellness counselors." And so I approached two suitably qualified people to write a response. Dr. Joel Kaye (my esteemed brother-in-law) has a PhD in Immunology from the Weizmann Institute of Science, a Fellowship in Immunology from Harvard Medical School, and 16 years’ experience developing drugs for Autoimmune Diseases and Cancer. Dr. Gillian Kay (no relation) has a PhD in pharmacology and has been involved in molecular biology research at Hebrew University for 25 years. Here is their response:

This IS a Vaccine

The homepage of Israel National news, the English language website of Arutz 7, has three headlines close together:

“9,172 new COVID infections in 24 hours”

“1 person with British mutation gives 146 people COVID”

“This is not a vaccine”

The extremely worrying current situation regarding COVID-19 has not deterred Arutz 7 from publishing an article aimed at preventing people from vaccinating against this disease. This opinion piece, packed with misinformation and distortions, was written by Ilana Rachel Daniel, a “Health and Wellness Counselor”, who has a hastily put together website in which she gives a link to what purports to be the “Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System Israel,” but is in fact a Google form that gives no indication where the information goes to or mention of data protection. The questions on the form include personal details and medical history. Her qualifications and scientific background are not given on her website or in the article.

The subheading is “Israeli people haven't been given information required for a sufficient risk-benefit analysis in this extraordinary endeavor.” We assume she has not subscribed to the Ministry of Health’s Telegram channel or bothered to spend any time looking at the wealth of information on their website, but apart from that, since when does a country's general population carry out risk-benefit analyses about public health issues? It is the job of the Ministry of Health and their scientists and epidemiologists to weigh all of the evidence before approving medicines for the use in specific diseases. Tens, if not hundreds, of independent people from different disciplines review the data for ALL drugs and vaccines. Every medication we take – from antibiotics to biological anti-cancer drugs has been reviewed and approved. Each individual ultimately has the right to decide for his/herself whether to vaccinate, but the public health decisions are not made by the public, but for the public.

The impression from the article is that a secret agreement was made to offer Israeli citizens to Pfizer as guinea pigs, an agreement that is only now being revealed, and that the vaccine is being tested on us before everyone else. While it is true that Israel is leading the world in the number of vaccines per 100 people, as of Jan 14th 37.5 million vaccination doses have been given worldwide. We only account for 2 million of these. What is special about Israel is that since we have both a high vaccination rate and a high disease prevalence, the effect of the vaccine will be quickly seen. In addition, we have a fully computerized medical system that creates a huge amount data; this is termed “big data”. All the HMOs use this big data to carry out many studies, analyzing the effects of many public health interventions, medications, vaccines, diet, various therapies and more. This data is all protected by privacy laws so personal identifying information is never revealed. The Ministry of Health is also keeping track of all adverse events as a result of COVID-19 vaccination (the online form for reports can be found here). The information collected is available to all on their website (the presentation given to the committee in charge of monitoring adverse events at their first meeting can be found here). So much for the supposed “complete opacity of data on the unfolding outcomes of adverse reactions currently taking place”.

Phase 3 clinical trials are carried out on tens of thousands of people, providing enough information on efficacy and safety for roll-out to the population at large. Research into the effects of the vaccine or drug always continue after roll-out. This is the only way to reveal any rare adverse events and long-term effects and efficacy. It can be considered Phase 4 of the trials; currently there are at least 17 million people in this “trial” worldwide (since we don’t know how many of the 35.6 million doses were first or second doses).

Daniel's article makes several claims that at best demonstrate her limited knowledge of immunology and the basic tenets of cell biology. For example, she states that Pfizer’s vaccine is not actually a vaccine “..as defined by the CDC as 'A product that stimulates a person’s immune system to produce immunity to a specific disease.' Rather, it is an experimental and novel technology." Since the vaccine does in fact stimulate a person’s immune system to produce immunity to COVID-19, this is a strange thing to say. The fact the technology is relatively novel (after over 10 years of research) does not have any relevance to its mechanism. 

Daniel further claims that "By definition of the FDA as a component used as treatment to affect a body’s function, it is indeed a medical device, a physical device that comes in a molecular sized package." All vaccines affect a body's function in the same way, causing it to produce antibodies. This vaccine just does that in a different way, using mRNA instead of a piece of the virus. That does not turn it into a medical device.

A particularly problematic claim is that "An mRNA vaccine is not a vaccine, because it does not elicit an immune response. What it is, is genetic engineering." No, that is not what genetic engineering is. Genetic engineering is the process of using technology to alter the genetic makeup of an organism via direct manipulation of one or more genes. This vaccine does not alter DNA, and it does elicit an immune response, just via production of a protein. She shows her total lack of knowledge of molecular biology (and the Human Genome Project) later in the article when she discusses “tampering with the human genome”. The human genome cannot be altered by injecting mRNA into our muscles; mRNA does not change DNA – it cannot even enter the cell nucleus where DNA is located. Presumably the author is also unaware that the virus itself hijacks our cell machinery in order to replicate, making our cells produce the proteins it needs (without altering our DNA). 

Daniel goes on to discuss several vaccines whose research failed at the animal phase due to antibody dependent enhancement (ADE). Since the current COVID-19 vaccines did not fail at the animal phase, and ADE has not been seen at any three research phases or as a result of the 35.6 million doses already administered, we fail to see any relevance to this information, unless the aim is to provoke unnecessary fear.

The next issue raised by Daniel is that of autoimmune disease and infertility. The immunological concerns of mRNA vaccines have been considered in detail and this vaccine platform has been extensively explored for other infections and cancer. Molecular mimicry has been described as a potential mechanism of some autoimmune disease. But molecular mimicry means that a tiny stretch of amino acids would need to be identical at a molecular level. As described in the NY Times by Stephanie Langel, an immunologist and expert in maternal and neonatal immunity at Duke University, the coronavirus spike and the placental protein in question have almost nothing in common, making the vaccine highly unlikely to trigger a reaction to these delicate tissues. The two proteins share only a minuscule stretch of material; mixing them up would be akin to mistaking a rhinoceros for a jaguar because they are wearing the same collar. If this were true, we would also expect COVID-19 to cause early pregnancy loss a significant amount of the time, which is not the case. There is no reasonable basis to believe that vaccines against COVID-19 will affect fertility.

Regarding prevention of transmission of SARS-CoV2 by Pfizer’s vaccine, it is untrue to claim that the mRNA vaccines were not designed with that aim but rather as treatments. A vaccine is by definition a prevention, not a treatment. The trials have shown conclusively that the vaccine completely prevents illness in 95% of people and prevents serious illness those few cases of vaccinated subjects who contracted the disease. However, the phase 3 trials were not designed to assess transmission; this is being investigated currently world-wide. Analysis of preliminary data by the Ministry of Health and the four healthcare providers indicate that transmission is prevented by between 50-60% after a single dose.

COVID-19 has challenged us in many ways. The scientific community has risen to this challenge, cooperating and shifting their research efforts into investigation of the disease, its treatment and its prevention. Misinformation and fearmongering must not be allowed to prevent us from ending this pandemic.

*  *  *

I would like to thank Dr. Kay and Dr. Kaye for putting together this response. If anyone would like to understand the science behind the mRNA vaccines and their efficacy, you can watch Joel on the YouTube channel “COVID Vaccine Facts and Fiction”. For general information about vaccination, מדעת is a wonderful resource (https://www.midaat.org.il/) and if you are looking for information in English about vaccination and evidence-based parenting, Gillian is one of the admins of a Facebook group VILOs (Vaccinated Israeli Little Ones)/ Evidence-Based Parenting where all questions are welcome. There is also a lengthy video about the vaccine from Prof. Yonatan HaLevy, former Director-General and current President of Shaarei Tzedek, at this link.

It must be noted that for some people, rational arguments have little effect; they need an emotional appeal. Fortunately, there is just the thing! Check out this amazing song on YouTube.

UPDATE: I was pleased to see that Arutz-7 posted this rebuttal on their website.

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Wednesday, January 13, 2021

When You Don't Need To Listen To The Rabbis

In yesterday's post, I explained why we should follow the Sanhedrin even if they are wrong. A number of people (who didn't realize the underlying message of the post) understood me to be saying that we must follow the Gedolim of today even if they are wrong. Some people even challenged me that I should therefore have obeyed the Gedolim who banned my books. 

In response to this, I present below the page from my website dealing with the controversy over my books, in which I explained all the reasons why I did not need to obey the charedi Gedolim. I've added a very important paragraph which specifically deals with the points raised in yesterday's post - it's highlight in bold and dark blue.

Why I am not following the ban

Some people have raised the question that, regardless of who is right or wrong in the central issues of Torah and science, the books must be withdrawn. The reason is that since leading rabbinical figures have banned the books, they must be obeyed even if one believes them to be mistaken. A verse cited as a basis for this is, "Do not stray right or left from all that they tell you" (Deut. 17:11) upon which Rashi cites the Midrash, "Even if they tell you that right is left and left is right, you must listen." I would like to explain why I am not doing so.

First of all, contrary to popular belief, there is no halachic obligation whatsoever for me to obey the distinguished rabbis that banned my works. The above mentioned verse is referring to the Beis Din HaGadol, a body of rabbinic authority that is no longer in existence. Nowadays, Judaism only obligates a person to follow his own rabbinic authority (in a case where he cannot determine the correct course of action himself). Furthermore, one is not obligated to follow other rabbis even if they are in the majority. The Chazon Ish points out that one need not follow the majority of rabbinic opinion, past or present, in determining a ruling. Only with the Sanhedrin was the ruling determined by majority vote. My own rabbinic authorities, who are certainly of adequate stature to render their own decisions in these matters, have ruled that my books are perfectly acceptable.

(It is sometimes pointed out that the Sefer HaChinnuch extends the above verse to include not just the Sanhedrin, but also the leading rabbinic authorities of every generation. In response to this, it should first be noted that the Sefer HaChinnuch is a minority view in this regard and is not binding. Second, even within the Sefer HaChinnuch's view, there are various criteria required that are not fulfilled in this case.) 

Now, while there may not be a halachic obligation to listen to any particular group of rabbis, there is certainly a very strong Torah principle that one must uphold rabbinic authority and not undermine it, even if it is mistaken. Nevertheless, this is not applicable here, for several reasons. The primary reason is that the rabbinic authority being challenged here is not the broad base of Orthodox rabbinic authority; rather, it is specifically the rabbinic authority of the charedi community - a community of which I am not (any longer) a member. Second is that, for reasons discussed below, the very nature of this rabbinic pronouncement is deeply problematic on a number of counts. Third is that the benefit of upholding the rabbinic authority of the charedi community is outweighed by the benefit of upholding the traditional rationalist approach to Torah and science issues (as well as the benefit of exposing the flaws in the contemporary model of rabbinic authority in the charedi community).

Still, even though I am not obligated to follow any rabbinic authorities other than my own, it nevertheless is appropriate to take the opinions of others very seriously. In light of the extremely great stature of the Talmudists and Halachists opposing my works, one may wonder why I am not playing it safe and withdrawing my books. The answer is that I believe that in this particular case, my own rabbinic mentors have several significant qualitative advantages.

One: My own rabbinic authorities possess greater expertise in science.
It is easy to dismiss views as heretical if one does not appreciate the reasons why they are being presented. History has proven that unfortunately sometimes even great rabbinic authorities have rejected views that turned out to be scientifically proven. For example, Rabbi Yaakov Rischer (1670-1733), author of the Shevus Yaakov and one of the greatest halachic authorities of his era, rejected science due to its position that the world is round, which, he claimed, ran contrary to the Talmud's position that the world is flat. This clearly demonstrates that knowledge of science is important in determining which beliefs are acceptable.

Two: My own rabbinic authorities possess particular expertise in Torah scholarship on these issues.
The field of Torah and science is relatively obscure. The teachings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, and even Rambam, are not widely known, even by great Talmudists and halachists. For example, few people are aware that Rambam held the view that the six days of creation were not actually time-periods (see, for example, Rabbi Chaim Dov Keller's article on this topic in the Jewish Observer). Another example is that it is widely believed that the position that the Sages were not infallible in science was the solitary view of Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam. I know for a fact that some of the signatories to the ban were under the impression that there is not even a single authentic source to this effect. My own rabbinic mentors have a particular interest in these topics and therefore possess particular expertise in this esoteric area. They are, for example, aware of numerous Torah authorities of previous eras who subscribed to these views.

Three: My own rabbinic authorities are much more familiar with my books.
In evaluating a book, it is important to be familiar with it in its entirety, not just with a few extracts. For example, many people are under the impression that my book Mysterious Creatures sets out to show that Chazal were mistaken about science, whereas in fact the majority of the book explains why in many cases there is no conflict. The introductions place the books in context, explaining what they are for and why they were written. The impression gotten from seeing the most extreme extracts of the books cannot be compared to that received from reading the books in their entirety. (Of course, those who believe that is is genuinely heretical to state that the Sages erred in science would not have this opinion changed even if they read the entire book. However, many of those who opposed my works did not subscribe to this extreme view.)

Four: My own rabbinic authorities are more familiar with my target audience
My rabbinic authorities, rather than being from the insular sections of the yeshivah world, have dealt for many years with people who have been grappling with these issues. (Rabbi Moshe Shapiro was quoted as saying that in his experience, these questions rarely arise; the experience of my rabbinic mentors is vastly different.) They are more aware of which sort of people are reading my books, of the neccessity of my books for these sorts of people, and of how the style of my books and their tone is uniquely suited to this audience.

Five: My own rabbinic authorities know me as a person
Knowing the people involved in engineering the ban and approaching the signatories, there is little doubt that they did not describe me in glowing or even objective terms. The signatories probably saw me as someone out to destroy Torah under the guise of explaining it. Had they met me, I believe that they would not have been so quick to condemn me. No doubt this is one of the reasons why the zealots who engineered the ban were so determined to prevent me from meeting with any of the signatories.

Six: My own rabbinic authorities discussed the issues with me
My rabbis discussed whatever reservations they had with me, until everything was ironed out. The signatories of the ban did not meet with either me or my rabbinic mentors and were not able to discuss their concerns, which, in some cases, I may have been able to allay. The Minchas Chinnuch, commenting on the Sefer HaChinnuch's unusual view that the consensus of rabbinic authorities of each generation must be followed whether right or wrong, notes that this is only the case if the rabbinic authorities actually discussed the issue with each other; failing that, one can never know if the minority might have actually been able to convince the others of the correctness of their position.

Seven: My own rabbinic authorities follow a different school of thought
There have long been two distinct streams of thought within Jewish philosophy, commonly termed the rationalistic and the mystic. The rabbis who condemned my works are aligned with the latter, whereas my rabbinic mentors are aligned with the former.
For example, Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch wrote that those who seek to explain phenomena in terms of mechanical natural processes and to minimize the miraculous do so in order to minimize the greatness of God. Rambam, on the other hand, wrote that "we shall endeavor to integrate the Torah with rational thought, leading events according to the natural order wherever possible." Rabbi Sternbuch apparently follows those who criticized Rambam's approach, whereas my rabbinic mentors follow Rambam. 

The banned books are available online at this link.

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Tuesday, January 12, 2021

When The Rabbis Tell You To Eat Treife

This past Shabbos, one of my daughters asked me why we have to listen to Chazal on everything - surely they could be mistaken? Just because they're the establishment, the majority, who says that they're correct?

It's an important question, and the answer has ramifications far beyond the question - in fact, it's extremely relevant to current events.

The Torah describes the case of the zaken mamre, the rebellious elder who is punished for going against the ruling of the rest of the Sanhedrin. One might presume that this is because even if they appear to be mistaken, they are actually always correct, due to their being the majority of Sages, or due to their receiving divine assistance. But Chasam Sofer says otherwise.

Chasam Sofer raises, and then rejects, the idea that the Sanhedrin receive divine assistance to ensure that they are never mistaken (despite the fact that this was proposed by no less a figure than Ramban). His reason for rejecting it is that, as seen in the Talmudic story of the Achnai oven, no form of divine intervention is permitted in the halachic process — “[The Torah] is not in Heaven.” The Sanhedrin are human beings, and they are thus, by definition, fallible. Chasam Sofer concludes that one is obligated to accept that the Sanhedrin can make mistakes. He further points out that the zaken mamre may be wiser than all the rest of the Sanhedrin, and may even have the majority of non-Sanhedrin scholars on his side. Chasam Sofer stresses that the zaken mamre may even be correct! He gives the powerful example of a lone judge on the Sanhedrin who is of the view that a certain food is not kosher, and is actually correct that it is treife food — yet if the rest of the Sanhedrin rules that it is kosher, he must not refuse to eat it!

Yet this zaken mamre - a great Torah scholar who is the voice of the silent majority, who may even be the one voice who is actually getting the halacha correct, is nevertheless liable for the death penalty for the "crime" of not abandoning the truth and following the Sanhedrin's ruling. Why?

The reason is simple, yet profound. 

It is crucial to maintain a system of authority, because without it, you have anarchy. 

If one person who knows better is allowed to disobey the courts, then everyone who believes that they know better than the courts will do what they think is correct. And then the courts and the legal system lose all authority. Which means that society will inevitably fall apart. Gone. Finished. Kaput. And the importance of a single truth does not remotely justify destroying everything.

That's why, in the famous story of the Achnai oven, when even a Divine voice rings out that R. Eliezer is correct, his ruling is nevertheless ignored in favor of the majority. The ruling of the majority must be followed not because they are necessarily correct - after all, in this case God Himself said that they were wrong! Rather, it must be followed due to the much greater importance of upholding the system of authority and preventing anarchy. Better for the system to occasionally get it wrong than for the entire society to collapse into chaos because everyone does what they think is right.

Stop and think about this for a few moments. This member of the Sanhedrin - this great man who has done so much for the Jewish People, who is upset that they are getting the halacha wrong and wants to make them great again, this brave man who goes against the mainstream and speaks truth to power, who is speaking the truth - is liable for the death penalty. Because by focusing on the narrow issue of his own certainty of having arrived at the truth, he has ignored the tremendous harm that he is doing to the very fabric of society. If you give license to disregard the system when you believe yourself justified, they you ruin the system. And if you ruin the system, the central body of authority, then society falls apart. An act which initially appears righteous can be devastatingly harmful and must be treated accordingly.

Vehamaivin yavin

 

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