Sunday, February 28, 2021

Are These Purim Costumes Offensive?

Me and my creations, about thirty years ago
Like many people, I love seeing everyone dressed up for Purim. I've also always been passionate about dressing up myself. Little-known fact about me: As a child, after being convinced by others to give up on being a zoo director because it isn't a realistic job for a nice Jewish boy, I spent several years wanting to work in Jim Henson's Creature Shop, since I was obsessed with the Muppets and made lots of Muppet costumes. For several years, I would do a muppet-themed show for Purim.

Recently, though, it has turned out that some costumes which other people wear, I find very offensive, and some costumes that I think are perfectly fine, others find highly offensive!

One of my kids wanted to dress up this year as the coronavirus. I thought that this was in extraordinarily bad taste, and I nixed it. But apparently my view is not universally shared, because I saw lots of pictures of children dressed up as a coronavirus. Still, I'm pretty sure that this did not happen in any families where people died of coronavirus. And I think that it's an illustration of how people don't necessarily take it so seriously if it hasn't affected them personally - similar to how a certain vocal anti-vaxxer whose sister-in-law just died of covid said that it took her death for him to take covid seriously.

On the other hand, there were plenty of children in Israel happily dressed up in costumes that are apparently completely unacceptable in the United States. I saw numerous Native Americans, Chinese characters, Mexicans, Bedouin shepherds, and a few years back I myself dressed up as an African witch doctor, inspired by a genuine African witch doctor that I once met on a small island off the coast of Kenya. Most people here don't consider these costumes to be offensive cultural appropriation - and likewise, most people here would not object to non-Jews dressing up as rabbis.

But there was one dress-up I saw a video of which was extremely upsetting. It was a Yerushalmi cheder in which all the children were dressed up for a demonstration, complete with placards and blowing horns. Just like grown-ups! It was a tragic reflection of a society in which the only real activity that its members ever do is demonstrating.

Anyway, speaking of colorful ethnic characters, here's an interesting advertisement for a new documentary about how different religions view the animal kingdom:




Friday, February 26, 2021

Happy Purim!

 


(Just in case anyone needs the explanation: Tiger King, Chess Queen, Queen Maleficent, Beauty Pageant Queen (Miss RBS), Dairy Queen, King of Egypt, & the King of Cards!)

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Posturers vs. Rebbi

this link

It's D-Day! Today is the day when Daf Yomi reaches the single most fundamental topic in any discussion about Torah and science - or indeed, about rationalism vs. mysticism in general. It's Pesachim 94 - the sun's path at night.

To briefly summarize: the Chachmei Yisrael state that in the evening, the sun doubles back and travels behind the opaque dome ("firmament") of the sky. No less than Rebbi himself, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, observes that this is not correct. And all the Geonim and Rishonim, without any exception whatsoever, interpreted this passage according to its straightforward meaning, as a discussion about where the sun goes at night (though Rabbeinu Tam maintains that Chazal were correct because the sun does indeed go behind the sky at night). It was only beginning in the 16th century that various authorities reinterpreted the Gemara such that it is not at all talking about the sun going behind the sky at night. And even after that period, there were still plenty of authorities who maintained the classical, traditional understanding of the Gemara (which is also, of course, the one which is by far the most reasonable).

So, what happens when you present this Gemara, along with the Rishonim and Acharonim, to those who insist that it is heretical to state that Chazal could be mistaken in their claims about the natural world? Some, such as Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, respond with an enormous amount of obfuscation, in an apparent attempt to confuse the issue and overwhelm people while avoiding the clear meaning of this topic. In other cases, as you can see from the comments to my post on this topic a few days ago, people respond with a lot of posturing.

The word "posturing" refers to behavior that is intended to impress or mislead. In this case, it's both. They make a lot of claims about how only True Torah Scholars like they and their rabbis understand this Gemara properly. They issue a lot - a lot - of insults about how I don't know what I'm talking about. But when it comes to actually explaining what they believe the Gemara to be talking about, and how this can possibly be reconciled with the words of the Rishonim and Acharonim that I present - they are silent.

Of course, the reason for this is that they have nothing of substance to say. Trying to claim that all the Rishonim and Acharonim actually agreed with Maharal is like trying to square a circle. It just can't be done. 

But they can't admit that the classical approach to this Gemara is correct. Because this would mean that Chazal were mistaken about a fact of the natural world which nowadays seems very basic. Indeed, we find that no less than Rema himself explicitly admits that the embarrassment of such a possibility forced him to reinterpret this Gemara, against the explanation of Rambam and others: 

"And behold, I say that the words of our Sages, may their memories be for a blessing, are all built upon the true wisdom, and their words contain nothing perverse or crooked—even though sometimes, at first thought, it seems that they do not accord with the words of the scholars which are developed via proofs, especially in the field of astronomy. And some scholars (in saying that the Sages can be mistaken in matters of science) support themselves with that which they said that 'the gentile scholars triumphed over the Sages of Israel'; this is also with the words of the Master, the Guide, who wrote that 'the science of astronomy was not fully developed in the days of the prophets and the early sages.' But one who investigates this will be shocked to say that the Sages, may their memories be for a blessing, did not know these matters! A person who is concerned for the honor of his Creator and the honor of the Sages of the Torah will not think thus, but rather will be meticulous with their words."

And yet, as Rema himself is honest enough to acknowledge - in contrast to some people - Rambam and others did accept this Gemara according to its straightforward meaning. (By the way, it should also be noted that Rema's reinterpretation of this Gemara is completely at odds with Maharal's reinterpretation of this Gemara.) 

The greatest irony is that those who can't bring themselves to accept that Chazal were mistaken are going against the very lesson taught in this Gemara by Rebbi himself. Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi  acknowledges that the Chachmei Yisrael were mistaken. Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam presents this as the crucial lesson to take from this Gemara:

"And now, consider the guidance provided to us in this passage, and how precious is the principle that they taught: Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi evaluated these opinions based on the evidence alone, taking into account neither the identities of the Jewish sages nor those of the gentile sages; and he favored the gentile sages' view on the basis of this proof, which he thought would be accepted – that the wells are cool by day and hot by night. Truly is this master referred to as "our holy rabbi," for when a man throws off falsehood, retains truth, decides in its favor and retracts from his initial opinion when its opposite is proven to him, there can be no doubt that he is holy. Thus it is clarified to us that our Sages considered different views by examining their correctness and the proofs in their favor, not based on their exponents, whoever they might be.”

I can't think of a more relevant lesson for us today. So many people decide whether they staunchly support something or fiercely oppose it solely depending on whether it is advocated by representatives of their preferred political group. They should learn from Rebbi to overcome confirmation bias and accept the possibility that one's chosen representatives can be wrong. Indeed, this greatness can be seen in the Torah itself, which is not hesitant to ascribe error and sin to its heroes!

Anyway, in honor of the day, I'm making my extensive monograph on this topic - which is also a chapter in my new book Rationalism vs. Mysticism - free for download at this link. The one-page summary can be downloaded at this link. If you're in Daf Yomi, please let me know how the discussion of this topic went!

Meanwhile, there is good news for anyone who purchases Rationalism vs. Mysticism from the museum website - you will receive via email a free audio version of the introduction! You can purchase the book at this link.



Sunday, February 21, 2021

Encountering Leviathan

This morning, I had a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was reported that a young whale had washed up dead on a beach - an extremely rare event in Israel. I couldn't possibly miss the opportunity to see it, so off I went!


The whale was a fin whale, also known as a finback whale. This is the second-largest species of whale in the world, after the blue whale. Fin whales can reach ninety feet (27 meters) in length, and weigh up to around 110 tons. This one was a juvenile, at around fifty feet (17 meters) long and an estimated weight of only 25 tons. The cause of its death was unclear, but there has recently been terrible pollution off the coast of Israel, with a tar spill that has killed turtles and countless other wildlife. It was very sad that such a magnificent creature should have died at a young age.

I had hoped to be able to cut out one of its baleen plates, to complement the various whale parts that are on exhibit at the Biblical Museum of Natural History. Alas, the saw that I brought for the task just wasn't up to the job. The scientists there were also struggling with their tools as they tried to cut open the enormous carcass. Eventually they brought a generator and power tools, with which they were able to make progress, but by that point the stench was so overwhelming that I just couldn't bear to stay any longer. But I did manage to film some videos, which we will be editing and posting. (In the interim, we have a brief video clip on the museum's Facebook page.)

Whales are, of course, mentioned in Tanach. Barchi Nafshi, my favorite chapter of Tehillim, is a paean to the great wonder of the natural world, including animals such as hyraxes, ibex and storks. It includes the following account of the ocean:

 מָה רַבּוּ מַעֲשֶׂיךָ יְהוָה כֻּלָּם בְּחָכְמָה עָשִׂיתָ מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ קִנְיָנֶךָ: זֶה הַיָּם גָּדוֹל וּרְחַב יָדָיִם שָׁם רֶמֶשׂ וְאֵין מִסְפָּר חַיּוֹת קְטַנּוֹת עִם גְּדֹלוֹת: שָׁם אֳנִיּוֹת יְהַלֵּכוּן לִוְיָתָן זֶה יָצַרְתָּ לְשַׂחֶק בּוֹ: (תהילים קד:כד-כו) 
“How manifold are Your works, O God! In wisdom You have made them all; the earth is full of Your creations. Here is this great and wide sea, where there are innumerable creeping things, creatures small with great. There go the ships; and Leviathan which You have made to play in it.” (Psalms 104:24-26) 
I photographed this humpback whale in Alaska

As I explained in a post a few years ago, there is actually some ambiguity regarding the meaning of this verse. The Hebrew phrase לְשַׂחֶק בּוֹ “to play in it,” can be translated in different ways. Who exactly is doing the playing? And what is Leviathan, anyway?

Simply speaking, the verse is referring refers to God having Leviathan to play in the sea. This is indeed how most of the commentaries explain it. And while Midrashic accounts of a titanic leviathan have been interpreted by some as referring to an actual creature of stupendous proportions, and by others as an allegorical concept (and this is one of the topics of the Maimonidean controversies, discussed in my book Sacred Monsters), the leviathan of Psalms can straightforwardly be explained as the whale. 

Rashi, however, following an Aggadic portion of the Talmud, gives a different explanation. He explains it to mean not that Leviathan is playing in the sea, but rather that God created the Leviathan for Him to play with. Accordingly, it would mean that even the mighty Leviathan is nothing more than God’s plaything. (Furthermore, according to Rashi, the verse does not refer to whales, but rather to the singular titanic Leviathan, of which there is only one in the world.)

Rabbi Meir Leibush Malbim (1809-1879), on the other hand, gives a third explanation. He states that it means that the aforementioned ships are playing with leviathan. Accordingly, it refers to whaling ships engaged in the "sport" of hunting whales.

It is fascinating that Malbim seeks to provide an entirely new explanation of this verse. But is it a plausible explanation of what the Psalmist could have been referring to, or is it anachronistic? Although tribal peoples, with no easy sources of food, have hunted whales for millennia, it does not appear that this was done with the great whales in the Mediterranean in Biblical times. There is no archeological or archaeozoological evidence for ancient whaling in the Mediterranean, although this is a case where absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence. A recent paper that performs an initial exploration of this topic, "Ancient Whale Exploitation in the Mediterranean," further suggests that if the Mediterranean whale community in antiquity was similar to that of today - i.e., species that only live in deep water - "it is unlikely that organized forms of whaling would have developed, as the presence of whales close to the coastline would have been rare and unpredictable."

ZooRabbi Junior, with a small piece
of baleen, currently on display at
The Biblical Museum of Natural History
Although it is unlikely that the verse is speaking about whaling, we can certainly understand why Malbim would explain it that way. Malbim lived in the nineteenth century, when ships and whaling techniques had developed to the stage where it was viable to hunt whales on the high seas of the Atlantic. And there was enormous demand for whale oil, which was used for lamps, along with baleen (whalebone) which was used for everything from buggy whips to corsets. In Malbim’s lifetime, whaling was a very big business. Thus, it makes perfect sense that Malbim would explain the verse in this way.

Meanwhile, if you'd like to see various parts of whales, along with a live colony of hyraxes and mounted specimens of the other animals in Barchi Nafshi, then come visit the Biblical Museum of Natural History - which just re-opened today! Due to Covid, tours must be booked in advance; write to office@BiblicalNaturalHistory.org to book your tour. Live online tours are still available for groups unable to physically visit; see www.BiblicalNaturalHistory.org/live for details.

 

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Thursday, February 18, 2021

My Greatest Mistake

I've made many mistakes in my life. But probably one of the most consequential, at least in terms of Jewish thought, was my failure to have sufficient expertise in the topic of Torah and science during the Great Controversy of 2004-2005. It was a period when I had a unique power to directly and indirectly get people to talk about particular topics and sources, and I messed it up.

Had I possessed sufficient expertise, I would have realized that the whole framing of the discussion regarding Chazal being mistaken in their statements about the natural world was wrong. It was purportedly about the legitimacy of following the statements of authorities such as Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam and Rav Hirsch. My opponents dismissed such sources as forgeries, or as an obscure minority view that no longer had any validity. The mainstream mesorah, they insisted, is that Chazal's statements about the natural world are divinely-inspired and cannot be mistaken.

But there is a single passage in the Gemara which unequivocally proves otherwise. I'm talking, of course, about the topic of the sun's path at night. Here you have a statement by Chazal - that the sun doubles back and travels behind the opaque dome of the sky - which is certainly not correct. No less than Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi even observes that it is not correct. And all the Geonim and Rishonim, without any exception whatsoever, interpreted this passage literally, as a discussion about astronomy. It's only beginning in the 16th century that various authorities reinterpreted the Gemara to absolve Chazal of being mistaken. And even after that period, there were still plenty of authorities who maintained the classical, traditional understanding of the Gemara (which is also, of course, the one which is by far the most reasonable).

So, those who claim that it is forbidden to say that Chazal erred in their statements about the natural world, are themselves doing something much worse than what they accused me of doing. Not only are they going against the mainstream interpretation - they are attempting to entirely delegitimize it!

Sixteen years ago, I missed my chance to get people to confront this topic. But there's another opportunity. Daf Yomi reaches this topic on this coming Tuesday! And so I have now prepared a single page which clearly summarizes the topic - including observing that notwithstanding the mainstream, classical approach being to learn this Gemara according to its straightforward meaning, a number of recent rabbinic authorities have declared this to be heretical. They might be afraid to acknowledge the positions that I cite, but I'm not afraid to cite their position.

You can download the page in PDF format at this link. Please circulate it, especially to those learning Daf Yomi!

A full-length discussion of the topic of the sun's path at night can be found in my new book, Rationalism vs. Mysticism: Schisms in Traditional Jewish Thought. The book can be purchased from the museum website, with proceeds going to the museum.



Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Do Charedim Live Off The State - Really Really?

A number of people sent me a recent article in Globes, about how the claim that "Charedim live of the state" is not actually true, if you look at the statistics. Since the author of the article is a charedi apologist from Kiryat Sefer, I was instantly suspicious. I asked a friend of mine, who is part of the charedi community, works in finance, and thus has a much better understanding of these topics than I do, to write a response. Since he is part of the charedi community, he has chosen to remain anonymous. Here is the response:

Haredi author Shulamit Rosen recently published an article in Globes with the headline "Do Israel’s haredim really live off the state?". The article purports to assess how accurate the “accusation against haredim of economic parasitism” is.

“Economic parasitism” is an inflammatory term, and one that is unlikely to be helpful in considering the economic contribution made by Israel’s haredi community. This post will instead seek to provide context to the numbers Rosen cites in making her case that the truth is “so distant from the media’s depiction and the common financial perception of haredim”. As will become apparent, her article obfuscates more than it illuminates.

Rosen seeks to parry the accusation that “haredim don’t pay taxes”, by citing the fact that the pre-Covid 19 haredi employment rate for 25-64 year olds was 64.5%, only 14% below the 78.5% for Israeli citizens on the whole. Yet this is misleading in several ways. To begin with, employment rates do not actually answer the question of how much tax haredim pay. And if we compare haredi employment rates to the 86% employment rate for non-haredi Jewish Israelis (rather than the entire Israeli population, which includes both haredim and Arabs), then the disparity is actually considerably larger: 21.5%.

As far as taxes are concerned, we can do little better than cite the Israel Democracy Institute’s "Haredi Society in Israel, Yearly Report (2020)", the very report Ms. Rosen relies on to support her contentions. This report shows that, in 2018, the average haredi household paid 1,524 NIS per month in income tax, national insurance and health insurance, which is only 34% of the 4,461 NIS paid by the average non-haredi Jewish household. This disparity reflects the fact that haredi households have a much lower income than their non-haredi counterparts: in 2018, the average haredi household brought in 9,766 NIS a month from work, which is only 54% of the 18,191 NIS the average non-haredi Jewish household earned per month. Nor do haredi households spend more on (taxed) goods and services. Despite its much larger average size, the average haredi household spends 16% less on these than its average non-haredi counterpart.

As for the 21.5% gap in employment rates between haredim and non-haredi Jews - while 21.5% is itself no small number, it also conceals the fact that when we consider men alone (instead of averaging the employment rate of both genders), their employment rate is only 52.5%, compared to 88% of their non-haredi Jewish counterparts. And haredi men in 2018 in work earned only 56% of what their non-haredi Jewish male counterparts did: that was partially due to a lower number of hours worked (84% of the hours worked by non-haredi men), but largely due to lower wages (67% of those of non-haredim), which itself is because they are generally working in non-professional careers. It is worth noting that 27% of the haredi males who are employed work in education, which by and large means that they are part of the haredi cheder and yeshiva complex. That compares with a mere 4% of non-haredi males who work in the education sector.

While the employment rate of haredi women is just 7% below that of non-haredi Jewish women (76.5% vs 83.5%), they only earn 66% on average of what non-haredi women earn, largely due to the fact that many of them are employed part-time. On average, haredi women who are employed work 77% of the hours of non-haredi women. Funnily enough, Rosen does note that “only 57% of employed haredi women actually work full time”. But this is only in the context of her attempt to demonstrate that haredi women do not disproportionately benefit from discounted child day care.

Rosen proceeds to ask “exactly how much financial assistance do haredim receive from the government?” But instead of answering this question, she merely cites some problematic statistics regarding government subsidies for the haredi and non-haredi education systems. As for how much haredi families receive from the state in welfare and other related payments, here too Rosen’s favored Israel Democracy Institute report comes in handy. The report notes that the average haredi family received 3,577 NIS per month in welfare and support payments, 66% more than the 2,157 NIS received by the average non-haredi Jewish family.

When it comes to the relative state subsidies for the haredi and non-haredi education systems, Rosen makes much of the limited funding provided to yeshiva students in comparison to university students. While there is certainly room to debate the extent to which a Jewish country should fund yeshiva study, it is perfectly reasonable that, from an economic perspective, the government should seek to subsidize university studies (which, incidentally, are open to haredim too) to a greater extent than yeshiva learning, since university studies train people to be able to contribute more to the economy.

Rosen claims that “mainstream elementary schools in Israel receive NIS 1,262 per student per month from the ministry. And haredi elementary schools? NIS 404 per student”. Yet, according to Israeli official statistics (see the table on page 15 of this report from Israel’s State Comptroller), “recognized” haredi elementary schools receive an average of 1,008 NIS per student per month, 89% of the 1,133 NIS received by non-haredi schools. Of course, many haredi boys in particular study in schools that receive reduced government funding due to their refusal to teach the national curriculum, and this may explain some of the disparity between Rosen’s numbers and those presented here. But it should also not be overlooked that, in other countries, even ones that provide state funding to religious schools, those schools that opt out of teaching the national curriculum do not receive funding from the government. Moreover, given that Haredi families tend to have a far larger number of children than non-Haredi families, this favors the Haredim when considered in terms of educational funding received per household and certainly per taxpayer.

Rosen goes on to write that “the government finances NIS 2,625 of a standard high school student’s education per month, in contrast to NIS 655 for haredi high school students”. Once again, Israeli Education Ministry statistics (as cited in The Marker article) tell a different story. In 2018, haredi high schools received 1,975 NIS per student per month, versus 2,612 NIS for non-haredi high schools. Haredi boys tend to study in yeshivos ketanos rather than high schools, and this presumably accounts for some of the disparity between the Israeli Education Ministry statistics and Rosen’s numbers, though the gap still appears suspiciously large.

In conclusion, while there is no conclusive cut-off point at which it can be said that a particular demographic “lives off the state”, it is abundantly clear that the haredi community’s relative contribution to Israel’s economy falls significantly behind that of its non-haredi Jewish counterpart. And when all is said and done, the average Haredi household does receive considerably more funding from the state than it pays in taxes.

Of course, much of this is due to the fact that Haredim are, in relative terms, poor in comparison to the non-haredi Jewish population. And poverty itself is no crime. But the simple fact is that maintaining a developed economy would be impossible if the rest of Israel adopted the educational and employment patterns that haredim choose. It is understandable that the communities that opt in to the elements which make Israel’s developed country status possible object to the rapidly growing segment of the population that does not.

To quote R. David Brofsky of Yeshivat Har Etzion: “...for those who actually experience the consequences - for those whose cities or towns have very little money to invest in parks, schools, and infrastructure because a significant percentage of their population, in principle, lives below the tax bracket, for those whose taxes are higher because other communities choose not to participate in the tax burden, for those whose children spend years in the army defending a community which in principle doesn’t bear the burden of participating in the country’s defense - these are actually real issues. All societies are made up of those who are wealthy, those who are in the middle-class range, and those below. And by definition, societies are meant to provide for all, and individuals certainly can choose to enter high or low paying fields. I am referring to the ideology of an entire community - which denies its children the education necessary to enter the workforce in a significant manner… I believe, as a community, there should be an evaluation of whether those decisions are considerate of the broader population.” 

 

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Monday, February 15, 2021

Reasonable Reasons Not To Take The Vaccine?

I have heard several reasonable, intelligent, sensible people give their reasons for not taking the Covid vaccine. They are as follows:

  1. It was rushed to market.
  2. It didn't undergo proper safety trials.
  3. It contains mRNA which affects our cells (albeit which is designed to help your body).
  4. There are stories of nasty short-term effects.
  5. There is potential for long-term harmful effects.
  6. There's no need to do something risky when there are safe cures available such as hydroxychloroquine.
  7. Various knowledgeable people, with no financial interest, are not in favor of it. 

The thing is, the exact same arguments are vastly more applicable as reasons to be more afraid of Covid than of the vaccine:

  1. Covid was rushed to market.
  2. It didn't undergo any safety trials - just danger trials.
  3. It contains RNA which affects our cells - and which is designed to harm them.
  4. There are vastly more stories of much nastier short-term effects - including death.
  5. There is enormous evidence for long-term harmful effects, including brain, heart and lung damage, amongst many other things. (Unlike the vaccine, where there isn't actually any particular reason to think that there can be long-term harmful effects.)
  6. There's no need to do something really risky, like potentially getting Covid, or taking something like hydroxychloroquine which is known to be potentially very dangerous, when there is a vaccine available which has already been safely tested on millions of people. 
  7. The overwhelming majority of knowledgeable people, with no financial interest, are firmly in favor of it.

But what about the fact that you might not actually get Covid? There are two responses to be made to that.

First is that the new strains of Covid are far more contagious. That's why even though so many people in Israel have been vaccinated and there has been a partial lockdown, there are still thousands of new cases daily. To presume that you won't catch Covid is simply foolish.

Second is that the question "Is it in my best interests to get the vaccine?" is a selfish one. The entire country is suffering from the hospital overload and the economic shutdown. Things can only go back to normal when a sufficiently large proportion of the population gets the vaccine.

Do the smart thing for your health. Do the right thing for your country. Get the vaccine. 

 (Incidentally, I ran all the above by two PhDs in the medical sciences.)


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Saturday, February 13, 2021

There's More To Torah Than Charedism

Last week, in The Angst of Jonathan Rosenblum, we discussed how charedi Judaism's preeminent spokesman has been expressing his dismay over his gradual realization that the community which he joined forty years ago is deeply broken, culminating in the disastrous response to Covid. In his latest Mishpacha column, Dealing With Disappointment, Rosenblum continues on this theme, describing how a phone call made him aware of many others experiencing similar existential despair, both baalei teshuvah and FFBs. It left him, he says, "badly shaken."

Rosenblum comes up with a number of possible responses to make to people in such a crisis.  One is that there is nevertheless so much of value in a Torah life - Shabbos, community, inspirational religious teachers, and so on. Second is that since a Torah life is True, then we have to live it even if we are disappointed with its practitioners. And he briefly notes that awareness of this Truth is reached by different people in different ways - for some, their faith is due to the miraculous fortunes of the Jewish people, for others it is the scientific evidence for a Creator, and for yet others it is immersion in Torah. He concludes by noting that while none of this prevents his frustration about charedi behavior, it ensures that he won't change his way of life.

Did you spot the error?

All of the positive things he mentions are things that are true of Orthodoxy as a whole, and are not limited to the charedi community. But all the negative aspects that bother him so greatly are uniquely features of the charedi community! In the non-charedi communities - whether the YU, Modern Orthodox, or Religious Zionist communities - the response to the Covid pandemic has, by and large, been exemplary. Rav Schachter and Rav Willig were trailblazing in their halachic guidance. In one recent public question about vaccines addressed to Rav Yaakov Ariel, he replied: "I'm a rabbi. Go ask a doctor!" My brother-in-law Dr. Joel Kaye, a PhD immunologist who has taken a public role in dispelling disinformation about Covid and the vaccine, was invited to give a presentation to Rav Eliezer Melamad and Har Bracha, and he was blown away by Rav Melamed's grasp of how disinformation works. I haven't heard of anyone suffering a religious crisis due to the Covid response by non-charedi rabbis and communities.

I don't believe that there is any wilful intent by Jonathan Rosenblum to mislead here. It's a phenomenon that I wrote about last year, in a post titled "Who Are "Torah Jews"?" Many people within the charedi world don't even really grasp that non-charedi frum communities exist! They simply don't consider that there are communities of religious Jews and yeshivos and kollelim and rabbis and Torah scholars that are not charedi.

Those for whom the charedi response to Covid is the last straw, the watershed moment that shows how much of the rabbinic leadership and many in the community are completely disconnected from reality to the extent that they bring about sickness and death, don't need to be told that the Truth of Torah requires them to stay in the charedi community. There's more to Torah than charedism.

 

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. And if you live in Israel and haven't been vaccinated yet, then for Heaven's sake (and for the sake of the rest of the country) go and get it done - ubelieveably, there is more supply than demand.



Friday, February 12, 2021

Were the Council of Torah Sages following Rambam?

In the previous post, I expressed dismay at the absurdity of the Kol Korei from the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Agudas Yisroel of America. Proclaiming the pandemic to be an appeal from Heaven for us to correct our ways not only as individuals but also as a community, they identified the collective sin as materialism. A number of people argued that in doing so, the Moetzes was simply following the guidance of Rambam:

"It is a positive mitzvah of the Torah to cry out and to blow the trumpets whenever any danger afflicts a Jewish community... This is part of the procedure of repentance, for when difficulties occur and people come to pray, they realize that these happenings befell them because of their sins... and this will cause the troubles to be removed. However, if they do not pray, but instead say, 'Such is the way of the world...' - this is a cruel approach, that causes people to maintain their evil ways, and will bring further suffering." (Hilchos Taanis 1:1-3)

But this is deeply, deeply mistaken.

We have to differentiate between two things: the pandemic as a whole, and the distressingly high rate of sickness and death in the charedi community (which is supposed to be a community that is more sensitive to pikuach nefesh).

With regard to the pandemic as a whole, from a traditional religious perspective, while there may be a metaphysical cause, it is absolutely impossible to identify what it is. Nobody is using prophecy or the gorel haGra (or even claiming to do so). There are many potential sins, and it could be anything. It could be materialism. It could be licentiousness. It could be bittul Torah. It could be abuse and those who are complicit in covering it up. It could be cheating and disregard for civil law. It should also be noted that considering that Covid is a global pandemic, it would be rather strange to pin the blame on the actions of a subset of the Orthodox Jewish community; it would be more reasonable, and certainly more Maimonidean, to blame it on a global disregard for public health. 

So, perhaps we can be grateful that the Moetzes picked the genuine problem of materialism rather than a silly thing such as sheitels, but that would be setting the bar rather low, and it rather conveniently ignores the more "yeshivish" sins. And, as stated, it is ultimately impossible to know, or even to have any serious evidence at all in favor of any particular theory.

On the other hand, when it comes to the rates of infection and death in charedi communities worldwide - which, instead of being lower than that of the general public, are instead several times higher - there is a very obvious cause to which it can be attributed. And that is a phenomenon which, while not unique to charedi communities, is certainly disproportionately widespread in them: holding mass indoor crowded events (which are known to spread disease) and a disregard for health precautions such as distancing and wearing masks. Disregarding health precautions might not be a yeshivishe-sounding type of sin like tzniyus or materialism, but it most certainly involves multiple genuine aveiros, all the way up to murder (in the category of shogeg karov lemezid). For the Moetzes to dismiss that in a single insignificant line about how "Certainly, in this time of danger, we must act with great care for the health of our communities" is inexcusable.

If you're trying to avoid assigning any wrongdoing to the Gedolei Torah, hiding behind Rambam - a Torah giant who put enormous emphasis on health - is not the way to do it.

 

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Thursday, February 11, 2021

Daas Torah on Covid-19

The Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, the Council of Torah Sages of Agudath Israel of America, has shared its wisdom and guidance regarding the Covid pandemic. And if there's ever been a situation in this generation which has called for such wisdom and guidance, it's this. The pandemic has already been devastating the world for a year, with a particularly distressing, disproportionately high rate of sickness and deaths in charedi communities worldwide. And as the Gedolim point out:

It is clear that there is upon our nation an appeal from Heaven to correct our ways. Every person must examine his behavior and strengthen whatever may be lacking. But, in addition to that, the public – as a tzibbur – must examine its collective actions and lifestyle. We therefore feel it important to bring up a fundamental and broad point on which the public should now focus.
Finally! Strong Torah leadership about how chareidi communities, to a disturbing degree, have not cared to prevent the mass crowded gatherings which drove up the infection rate. About how they have not cared to wear masks or to keep infected people in quarantine. About how despite the principle that "all Jews are responsible for each other," people have not cared about those in their communities who are especially vulnerable to Covid, or who suffer from the resultant lockdowns. About how they have not cared to follow laws about precautions, nor cared about the deaths and chillul Hashem they have caused. About how even now, the rate of vaccination among the charedi community is far less than in the general public. After a year of tepid responses by Torah leadership, we now have a Kol Korei making the declaration that has been so desperately needed!

Ha! Unfortunately, though perhaps all too predictably, that's not what they say at all. Instead, the "fundamental and broad point on which the public should now focus" is something else altogether:

Klal Yisroel is a “nation of princes and a holy people.” The dedication of our people to Torah learning and to raising thousands upon thousands of families on the foundations of Torah and service to Hashem should be proclaimed far and wide! It is only the nation of princes, the holy people, who can do this despite the influence of the culture surrounding us. How fortunate are we, and how good is our lot!

However, we must remember that the meaning of “a holy people” is a people who – as Ramban, Vayikra 19:2 explains – distance themselves from the pursuit of excess. It is greatly concerning to us that if one examines our community’s lifestyle we see that there is much to improve in this area, as reflected, for example, in the advertisements in periodicals.

There are amongst us people who, notwithstanding their care with mitzvos, pursue fine foods and expensive vacations; they boast of their clothing and furniture; they are swayed by the triviality and bad of unfiltered smartphones and internet. Those who are engaged in these pursuits have turned from the lifestyle that was always a characteristic sign of the chareidi Jew: a modest life centered around Torah, service to Hashem, and kindness to others; a life purposed on being close to Hashem. All Jews are responsible for one another; we must all repent on this direction.

Certainly, in this time of danger, we must act with great care for the health of our communities. It is, however, also a holy obligation on us to uproot this spiritual danger from amongst ourselves and to return to being a holy nation to Hashem.

We turn to the Roshei Yeshiva and Rabbanim – the eyes of the community – and to all leaders in every community: Seek ways to inspire your yeshivos and shuls to return to what was; not to allow the Jewish nation to descend into the trap of a life of materialism. Through this we will remain a nation of princes and holy people, in the full meaning of the words.

!!!

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm all in favor of calling for people to cut down on excessive materialism. But to make this the focus of a Covid-19 Kol Korei?! This is what examining the collective actions and lifestyle of the charedi community calls for in light of all the sickness and deaths?

As I said to Rav Aharon Feldman many years ago, when he complained to me that I had "successfully made the Gedolim look like fools": It's not me or anyone else. They do it all by themselves.


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Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Learning Torah vs. Living Torah

In this forum I've discussed a few explanations for why there is a disturbingly high proportion of people in the charedi community, including rabbinic leaders, who disregard Covid precautions. One is that there is a non-scientific mindset which genuinely does not grasp the connection between ignoring precautions and contracting Covid. Another is that there is a feeling that the precautions are an anti-charedi decree being imposed by outsiders, which must therefore be resisted. But Rav Hershel Schachter, shlita, has suggested a third explanation. (The article, originally posted at TorahWeb, appears to have been taken down, perhaps because of some unfortunate comments made about the roles of Jews and non-Jews.)

Rav Schachter begins by expressing how disturbed he is about the high rate of infection in the charedi community, caused in part by the relative disregard for precautions. He notes that in classical halachic literature, pikuach nefesh is regarded as being of tremendous importance. "Halacha tells us that even if there is a sfeik sfeika, a very slight risk, of sakonah, still that slight safeik is sufficient to be docheh Shabbos and Yom Kippur and most of the mitzvos of the Torah. So the question begs itself, how could it possibly be that the number of infections in the Chareidi community due to COVID is twice as high as what it should have been, proportionally? ...This entire attitude that many otherwise very observant Jews have to totally ignore the recommendations of the medical community regarding the risks of COVID is in total contradiction to the Jewish tradition of psak halacha. The religious Jews always placed more value on human life than doctors did." 

A powerful question indeed. Rav Schachter boldly suggests the following partial answer:

My impression is that part of the explanation is a result of the derech ha'limud adopted in many of the yeshivas. There is a big emphasis on pilpul, sevoros, chakiros, and ha'veh a'minas in the Gemarah. The Gemarah considers the highest level of learning to be one who learns l'asukei sh'meitza aliba d'hilchosa - to reach a final conclusion as to what the halacha is. When I was a student in the Yeshiva, one of the talmidim asked a rebbe after we learned a whole piece of Gemarah that was relevant to halacha l'meisa - halachic practice, "so how do we pasken?" The rebbe, who was a European, responded in Yiddish, "call up the Agudas Harabonim and ask them". In the Lithuanian yeshivas in Europe learning halacha l'meisa was frowned upon. They misinterpreted the idea of learning Torah l'shmo to mean that one should not focus his learning arriving at a conclusion as to what the halacha is. It is well known that the Chazon Ish worked hard to correct this misunderstanding and influence the yeshivas to concentrate more on halacha l'maaseh.

Many students in the yeshivas today are trained to raise all logical possibilities about the halacha - maybe it's like this and maybe it's like that; on the one hand and on the other hand, etc. Rav Avigdor Nevenzal pointed out that the Malbim (in his commentary on Mishlei 1:7) understands that "אויל" is a specific type of a fool who is always raising questions and doubts, that maybe it's like this and maybe it's like that. The basic mitzvah of talmud Torah is to be familiar with all of the 613 mitzvos and all of their details. Answering a question Rav Akiva Eiger has on a Tosofos is comparable to eating the icing on a second piece of cake as part of dessert. The primary goal and focus of limud ha'Torah is to know halacha l'maaseh how to keep all the mitzvos ha'Torah. In my opinion much of the tragedy of the high infection rate among the Chareidi population is due to the faulty derech ha'limud which eschews focusing on the correct thing to do halacha l'maaseh, and instead focuses on pilpul and ha'veh a'minas. Just as in learning Torah they are preoccupied with sevaras that do not correspond to halacha l'ma'aseh, similarly in dealing with COVID they come up with, and act based on, ideas that simply don't correspond to reality.

Let us all return to the traditional style of learning that was practiced for so many centuries and merit the promise of the Torah, "וחי בהם" ולא שימות בהם.

Now, for those who are critical of the charedi response to Covid (or of charedi society in general), having someone like Rav Hershel Schachter issue a critique is welcomed, and there is an immediate desire to agree with what he says. But, in all honesty, I must say that I do not see how the high rate of Covid infections in the charedi community is due to acting on ideas not corresponding to reality which in turn can be traced to a derech limmud. To my mind, if there is a connection between the derech halimmud and the Covid response, then it is slightly different; that there is no attempt to match up their general societal actions with the laws and values of the Torah. 

That's how a charedi rally against conscription in the IDF sought to summon attendants from yeshivos with the rallying cry of "Shall your brothers go out to fight, and you remain here?" - without any self-awareness that this verse is actually about everyone joining the army! All the Torah discussion about fighting in wars, working for a living, even kindness to animals is only ever done in an abstract way, with no thought of translating this into how society should function today. The same is true with how pikuach nefesh, a principle of great importance in halachic literature, is not implemented in practice (along with other principles such as concern for chillul Hashem and eivah).

The basic problem of learning in an abstract way rather than in a way that corresponds to reality, was forcefully made several years ago in a tremendous essay by Rabbi Dr. Aaron Hirsch Fried in Hakirah, titled "Is there a Disconnect between Torah Learning and Torah Living?" The answer that he gave was, of course, that yes, there is tragically a great disconnect between the two. People can intricately learn topics in the Gemara about paying for damages and yet not make any connection to themselves damaging other people's property. There is often little attempt to translate the laws and values of the Torah into our daily lives.

I think that this relates to a much broader point about charedi vs. non-charedi conceptions of Torah. The charedi mindset is that Torah is primarily something to be studied in depth, as an end unto itself. The non-charedi (especially dati-leumi) mindset is that Torah is primarily a guide to how to improve society. 

This difference is perfectly expressed in the contrast between the charedi and non-charedi perceptions of who is a Gadol. The charedi perception is that the Gadol is the one who is secluded and totally immersed in Talmud study. His environment is completely removed from the world, and even his study focus and teachings are primarily focused on abstract Talmudic issues. Thus, Rav Chaim Kanievsky is the ultimate Gadol B'Torah. The dati-leumi perspective, on the other hand, could not be more different, and is expressed by Rav Eliezer Melamed as follows:

"Gadlut beTorah (Torah greatness, eminence) necessitates an all-embracing, fully accountable handling of serious issues facing the generation, including: the attitude towards Am Yisrael in all its diversity and various levels – both religious, and non-religious; the attitude towards mitzvoth of yishuv haaretz (settling the Land) and the ongoing war which has surrounded it for over a century; the attitude towards science and work, and the contemporary social and economic questions."

Charedi Gedolim don't even think in such terms, let alone formulate a serious approach to such issues.

Or, to give another potent example: Fulfilling Bein Adam L'Chavero is conceived in charedi society as relating to such things as learning (and hopefully following) the "halachos" of shmiras halashon. Even a broader perspective, such as that expressed in a recent Tzarich Iyun article about the nature of charedi society, only speaks about charity and giving in terms of neighborhood assistance. But in dati-leumi society, this is omitting an enormous aspect of Bein Adam L'Chavero - the broad picture of helping the nation as a whole to function in the best way, including serving in the armed forces and creating a high-functioning economy and society.

Is the focus on learning Torah, or on living Torah? That, to my mind, is the crucial difference between charedi and non-charedi society. And this in turn also relates to the difference between the rationalist and non-rationalist views of what Torah actually is - whether a practical guidebook for life, or a mystical source of energy merely clothed as a book of law and teachings (as per Nefesh HaChaim). I discuss all this in my new book Rationalism vs. Mysticism, and the ramifications are vast - as we have seen, it can be a matter of life and death.


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Monday, February 8, 2021

If Everyone Was Charedi

About twenty-five years ago, when my parents were trying to convince me to leave yeshivah and go to university, one of the arguments that they used was, "If everyone was charedi and in yeshivah, then where would we be?" My reply at the time was that if everyone was charedi, Mashiach would be here, and we wouldn't have any worries at all.

Today, I see things differently. According to the statistics of Covid fatalities in different sectors of the population, it can be said as follows: If everyone was charedi, there would be an additional seven and a half thousand deaths from Covid in Israel.


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Saturday, February 6, 2021

The Angst of Jonathan Rosenblum

Jonathan Rosenblum has penned a truly remarkable article in Mishpacha magazine. But first, some background.

It must be close to twenty-five years ago that I developed a relationship with Jonathan Rosenblum. Nosson Slifkin was a young, very idealistic yeshiva student, passionate about charedi ideology (which he believed to be The Right Derech) and greatly pained by the animosity towards the charedi community. I wrote an essay, explaining why nobody should resent the charedim for not serving in the IDF, which was well-received by many and which I later published in my unfortunate book of charedi ideology on the parasha, Second Focus. I decided to send it to Jonathan Rosenblum, the preeminent ambassador for the charedi world that I greatly respected, and we became friends. Over the following several years I enjoyed much hospitality at his home, both before and after I got married.

It was probably around the year 2000 that I started to have some misgivings about various aspects of the charedi community. I don't remember what they were, but I remember expressing this in a conversation to Jonathan. He agreed, but said that since the charedi community produced such towering figures as Rav Moshe Shapiro and Rav Aharon Feldman, it is vindicated.

And then, a few years later, my books were banned.

Like many people, Jonathan was devastated. As he put it to me, he woke up one day to find that his rebbe of many years considered his views heretical (for he too believed that the world is millions of years old, and did not believe in spontaneous generation). He told me at the time that he cancelled a lecture tour because he just didn't have the stomach to defend the charedi world. He went to great effort, behind the scenes, to try to reduce the harm that was being done, including urging Rav Aharon Feldman not to write his notorious article defending the ban. 

Unfortunately, our goals were not precisely aligned. Rosenblum's priority was to stop the harm being done to the charedi community, not the harm being done to Nosson Slifkin or his books' readers. He joined with certain members of the Kamenetzky family in urging me to print a partial apology in the Yated, as a tactical move in order to calm things down. Rosenblum was very angry with me for instead listening to my own rabbinic mentors, who advised me that it was not worth compromising my honor and integrity for what would probably be a futile endeavor anyway.

But what really caused me tremendous pain was when certain of my opponents gleefully shared a recording of a lecture that Rosenblum gave at the Discovery Institute (not Aish HaTorah's Discovery). He chose to take the Gedolim's side, explaining that the problem was that I refuse to listen to anyone (by which he was apparently referring to himself and the Kamenetzky family), and that I was arrogantly considering myself on a par with the Rambam (which was, of course, utterly false; the problem was that I was presenting Rambam's position). He also falsely claimed that the Gedolim were objecting to the "tone" of my books rather than the underlying positions, and that I had "easily and casually dispensed with" Chazal's supernatural knowledge of science, which he insisted they possessed.

I was utterly devastated by this betrayal of the truth and of our friendship. It was one of the worst moments of that entire horrible period. I sent Jonathan a letter, protesting this slander, which he didn't respond to. And that ended our relationship. Nevertheless, despite his publicly closing ranks with the Gedolim, Rosenblum had clearly been very, very disturbed by what had happened.

Over the years, Rosenblum's disillusionment with the charedi community became ever more apparent. He wrote a number of articles for Mishpacha magazine in which he put forth some incredible critiques of the charedi community. First he nailed a key problem with the charedi community that its insularism came at the cost of "a diminished Klal Yisrael consciousness." Then he compared mass kollel to toxic chemotherapy. Next, he called for wholesale reform in the charedi way of life vis-a-vis Torah study. In another article, he plainly stated that we all desperately need charedim to get academic education and professional employment. He reiterated the need for far-reaching change in another article, which he concluded by stating that the charedi community fortunately has Gedolim who are up to the challenge of making such reforms; I'm sure I cannot be the only one who felt that this obvious lip-service bordered on sarcasm. 

Not surprisingly, the charedi response to Covid has been particularly gut-wrenching for Rosenblum. In his latest article, Whatever Happened To Kiddush Hashem?, he expresses the great angst in which he now finds himself:

"It has been a very bad week for me. Over 40 years ago, my new wife and I joined the chareidi world. For 30 years, I have been a sometime spokesperson for that community, at least to the outside world. And suddenly, I find myself wondering whether I understand anything about the community, or at least a major swath of it, and its mindset."

The cause for his angst is, as he proceeds to describe, the utter contempt for the rest of society that certain elements of the charedi community have shown with their disregard for Covid restrictions and their hostility to those who attempt to impose them. He describes a range of phenomena, from the attacks on the police committed by a violent minority, to the all-too-familiar stories of charedim on airlines completely disregarding the instructions of the flight crew, this time with regard to refusing to wear masks.

Indeed, the generally appalling charedi response to Covid has been the cause of a tremendous crisis of identity for many people in the charedi world. I've received several communications from people in the heart of the charedi world who tell of their utter shock and dismay at the things that they see in their community, and how they are questioning their place in it. But especially telling is how Rosenblum says he dealt with his angst:

My only solace came when I mentioned how disoriented I'm feeling to my rav, a major talmid chacham and respected dayan, and he expressed the same feelings, despite having been raised from birth in the heart of the Israeli chareidi world.
How much of a comfort it is to see that major figures in the charedi world also realize that their society is broken? Sooner or later, will one of them be brave enough to publicly observe that the Emperor has no clothes?

Rosenbum sees the same fundamental and dangerous problems with charedi society that the rest of us see. He says that he wonders whether he understands anything about the community and its mindset; but one cannot but wonder if he problem is that he understands it all too well. I don't know whether he stays in the charedi world because he is too invested in it (especially with children and grandchildren in that world, it's not easy to leave), or because he still feels that, despite all its structural, deep, far-reaching problems, it is nevertheless the best place to be. Either way, it's a good thing that he stayed in it, because he is thereby able to write about such things in Mishpacha magazine.

 

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My new book Rationalism vs. Mysticism is now available for purchase online, with international shipping available. If you're in Israel, pickup can be arranged from several locations around the country. Order online and let the office know if you want a list of pickup locations or if you prefer to have it mailed to you.



Thursday, February 4, 2021

The Five Facts You Need To Know About Covid

1. With the new, more infectious strains of Covid, you are increasingly likely to contract it at some point.

2. There are no known significant harmful effects of the vaccine, aside from causing a tendency to take selfies. On the other hand, there are several very serious known long-term harmful effects of Covid, including damage to the lungs, heart and brain.

3. A week after taking both doses of the Pfizer vaccine, you are 95% protected. Even if you still get Covid, the data shows much less severe disease.

4. The stories about people who died from Covid after being vaccinated are people who got it before the vaccine took effect, or who died from other causes.

5. Life can only go back to normal when a sufficiently large proportion of people have been vaccinated.

Get vaccinated. For your own good, and for society’s good.

(Can someone make this into an attractive graphic?) 

On another note, my new book Rationalism vs. Mysticism is available for pickup from several locations in Israel. Order online and the office will contact you with a list of pickup locations, unless you prefer to have it mailed to you.



Wednesday, February 3, 2021

How To Make Society Hate You

Resentment towards the charedi community has long been a feature of society in Israel. Sometimes, it's through no fault of the charedim themselves; it's simply because they represent religious piety, which makes many feel insecure. But there have also been valid reasons for the antipathy. Most significant of these, of course, is the charedi policy of not sharing the national responsibility of serving in the IDF, and not even showing gratitude and respect for those who do. Then there's the economic aspect of their being a drain on society. For these reasons and more, charedim have been broadly resented, which has often been a dynamic in elections.

But never in the history of Israel has the charedi community been resented as much as it is now.

Everyone is suffering from the lockdown. And the reason why it is dragging out so long is that the infection rate is not going down particularly fast and the hospitals are full. This in turn is because despite the fact that over three million people have been vaccinated, that still leaves several million who have not been vaccinated, and are vulnerable to the new, more contagious strains. And a disproportionate number of these people - around a third of all infections - are from the charedi community. Even though this is to some degree simply a result of their living in more crowded conditions, it's also due to a prevalent pattern of keeping schools open, holding large weddings and even larger funerals, and so on. There's disregard for precautions in every sector of society, but much more so (and more visibly so) in the charedi sector. And so the entire country is paying a steep price due to the charedi disregard for how their actions affect others.

Furthermore, there is immense resentment when people have to curtail their own lives, and yet they see that the charedi community does not have to do the same. The rest of the country has to deal with their kids being at home, but most charedim send their kids to yeshivah. The rest of the country has to make tiny weddings, but many charedim continue to make huge weddings. Over half a million people in Israel have been fined by the police for Covid infractions; when people are fined for exercising or opening their business, and then they see videos of charedim freely congregating in illegal crowds of  tens of thousands of people for a funeral, this naturally causes great resentment.

It's not yet clear to what extent this unprecedented anti-charedi resentment will play out in the next elections. Some good might come out of it; it may cause the chareid parties to lose political power. Which in turn will mean a decline in their ability to further drive themselves down the path of economic self-destruction (and the economic destruction of Israel). But either way, the charedi community has created an enormous amount of resentment towards it - and it is largely justified. And outside of Israel, the behavior of charedi communities is likely to be generating considerable antisemitism. There's long been an antisemitic trope of Jews causing the plague, and charedim are providing fuel for this.

Meanwhile, if you live in Israel and haven't yet been vaccinated, then for God's sake go out and get it! Right now, the supply exceeds the demand, which is a disgrace. The only hope for life to go back to normal is for as many people as possible to be vaccinated.


Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Why Rationalism Vs. Mysticism (Probably) Won't Be Banned

In the previous post, I gave all the reasons why if my new book Rationalism vs. Mysticism is banned, as notoriously happened with three of my other books, it won't upset me. In this post, I will give the reasons why I don't think that this will happen. In the next post, I will give the reasons why it might still happen anyway.

So, why don't I think that Rationalism vs. Mysticism will be banned? Simple: All the ideas presented in it are backed up with powerful arguments and sources from respected traditional rabbinic authorities.

Just kidding! Obviously that doesn't make the slightest difference. Here are the real reasons:

1. I am no longer on the radar

The problematic books were written by Rabbi Nosson Slifkin, a charedi graduate of the Mir yeshiva. They had prestigious haskamos from charedi rabbonim and Gedolim. They were published by Targum Press and distributed by Feldheim Publishers. As such, they were read and taken seriously by people in the charedi world. 

In contrast, this book was written by Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin, whose very name and title gives him away as a treif non-yeshivish academic Zionist (aside from being a person who has already been cast out anyway). It bears no haskamos, just blurbs from academic scholars of Jewish thought. It's privately published and is distributed online and in stores by Gefen Books. It's just not something that appear on the radar as a threat.

2. There is no "political" objective

Some of the key figures involved in the original ban didn't really care about the books at all. They had their sights on a greater trophy. As Rabbi Berel Wein told me, my mistake in getting haskamos was compounded by the much greater mistake of one particular haskamah that I received - that of Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky. Originally, I made the foolish mistake of thinking that such a prestigious haskamah would render the book immune to attack. Little did I realize that it had the exact opposite effect. Rav Shmuel has long been by far the most moderate and broad-minded of the charedi Gedolei Torah (a reputation sadly since tarnished by his opposition to vaccines), and hails from a family of similarly broad-minded Gedolei Torah; consequently, he has long been a target for extremist zealots. Having his haskamah in my books gave them a golden opportunity to delegitimize him. But no such political targets exist with my new book.

3. Most of the original zealots are no longer operational

The Gedolei Torah, rabbis and askanim involved in engineering the original ban are, for the most part, no longer operational. Rabbi Leib Pinter, after having been sentenced to (another) long stint in prison for fraud, has since been released, but is unlikely to wield the same influence. Rabbi Leib Tropper lost his Machiavellian power after he was secretly filmed taking advantage of women. Rav Yitzchak Shiner and Rav Elya Weintraub have passed away. Rav Moshe Shapiro has also passed away, and his zealotry was anyway discredited by his arrest for instructing one of his followers to break into the home of an old woman (that he mistakenly believed to be running a ritual abuse cult) and beat her to death. And I am told that some of the Bnei Brak zealots that were involved in the ban of my books had to flee after being involved in taking advantage of people with a financial scam. There just isn't the same team that there was originally.

4. The previous backlash and consequences shocked them

When the dozens of charedi Gedolei Torah signed on the ban of my books back in 2004, I doubt that they gave a second's thought to what the consequences could be (and they certainly didn't do any investigation!). Had they done so, they might still have decided that there wouldn't be any. All authors to have previously been banned simply folded. Nobody dared question the authority of the Gedolim. Even if there had been one or two previously banned figures that did not submit, they had no real way of defending their work, and nobody in the frum community rallied around them.

What happened with the ban on my books, on the other hand, was very different. First of all, I didn't fold. This was not merely because I knew that my books were not actually heretical, and I had the strength to maintain my convictions; it was because as a young person whose kids were not yet in the "system," I had the option of simply leaving that world. But not only did I hold my ground; I had a miraculous way of making my position known. The internet had arrived! I had a website, with a dedicated section for the controversy, which became the central information resource for everyone, since I presented all my opponent's statements - along with respectful rejoinders by myself and many other people. Countless thousands of people were looking at it! Never before had the target of a ban had such a way to influentially and powerfully present his position. And, of course, the calm, source-based responses by myself and my supporters were much more impressive than the hysterical condemnations by my opponents which lacked any real arguments. As Rav Aharon Feldman bitterly said to me: "You've successfully made fools of the Gedolim." (To which I countered that I hadn't done anything - they themselves were entirely responsible.) 

But that wasn't all. I wasn't the only person with a website. It was the Golden Age of the Jewish blogosphere. There were many blogs that sprang up, and responses to the ban that circulated online. Some respectfully defended the approaches in my book with countless sources. Others challenged the authority and wisdom of the charedi Gedolim, some with sharp satire and great disrespect. Never before had the Gedolim had their authority challenged in such a way. They were used to delegitimizing others, not being delegitimized themselves. It was shocking for them.

And the blogs were just one manifestation of a larger phenomenon. When "Making of a Godol" was banned, it was just an attack on one person, Rav Nosson Kamenetzky. But when my books were banned, it was an attack on pretty much everyone who had ever adopted such approaches to reconciling Torah and science - which was many, many thousands of people. Suddenly the Gedolim were confronted with a backlash from countless people who were upset and infuriated, which they hadn't expected at all. It wasn't just Nosson Slifkin who believed in an age of dinosaurs and who used an approach from Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam - it was many, many people. It was probably the biggest blow to charedi rabbinic authority ever - alas, recently eclipsed by the Covid fiasco.

Nor did it end with the frum community. The ban received widespread attention from the wider Jewish community and ultimately the non-Jewish world. It made all the Jewish newspapers worldwide, along with the Wall Street Journal and New York Times - and none of the coverage was complimentary. The charedi world does not like this kind of attention.

But there were consequences beyond a backlash. Whereas some people challenged the Gedolim, others simply chose to leave the charedi world. Hundreds (possibly thousands?) of people realized that the charedi world simply was not for them. They chose to align themselves with the Yeshiva University community, with centrist or Modern Orthodoxy, and in some sad cases they left religious Judaism altogether. Whatever harm the Gedolim believed that my books were causing was vastly eclipsed by the harm caused by the ban.

Finally, the backlash had serious financial consequences. To the dismay of the Gedolim and askanim, they discovered that among those horrified by the ban were some very wealthy and prominent philanthropists. These people pulled their support of the yeshivos whose roshei yeshivah had signed on the ban; some of them reduced their support for charedi causes altogether. One of them told me that he kept a copy of the ban on his desk, so he could check the names when collectors came. And since that time, I've forged personal connections with some of the biggest names in Jewish philanthropy. 

Conclusion

For all these reasons, even though my new book is far more "controversial" than my previously banned books, it seems very unlikely that it will be banned. But in the next post in this series, I will give reasons why it might be banned anyway. Of course, if that does happen, it will sell out very quickly - so buy your copy now! (And remember, please do not buy it from Amazon!) 

 

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