Monday, March 29, 2021

The Haggadah You Have To Have

Comics and graphic novels are relatively new forms of publication for Jewish works. Recently, I reviewed the appallingly bad Just Imagine! graphic novel. There's also more than one Pesach graphic novel haggadah available. Some of them are unappealing at every level. Others have beautiful artwork, but suffer from presenting Midrash as pshat.

In contrast, The Passover Haggadah Graphic Novel is simply fantastic. It presents the entire text of the haggadah in comic format with superb artwork, and it (largely) sticks to pshat rather than Midrash. But it's so much more than that.

The Passover Haggadah Graphic Novel is amazingly creative in terms of how it takes the concept of Bechol dor v'dor - that every generation should see itself as being part of the Exodus - and makes it come to life, by interspersing the artwork of the Exodus story with other episodes from Jewish history of persecution and salvation. My son pointed out to me that there is an ongoing storyline about a Jew keeping his Jewish identity in Russia and eventually making aliyah which is told in several different sections interspersed throughout. And I love the picture for Avadim hayinu which depicts how it would look if we were still enslaved to Pharaoh today - in office cubicles under an Egyptian taskmaster! I keep discovering new things in it, such as the part about our not being masters of our own fate being illustrated by the George Washington Bridge!

But my favorite page is the full-page picture illustrating how everyone should see themselves as having left Egypt. It's a selfie taken by someone walking through the Yam Suf, and behind him you can see countless famous people from Jewish history. There's Rambam and Rabbi Sacks, and also Natan Sharansky and Ilan Ramon and Ben-Gurion and Albert Einstein. (There were several faces that I couldn't recognize - if you can identify more, please post the names in the comments.)

If you have kids who are not so interested in reading commentaries or listening to people give explanations, this is an amazing way for them to be engaged. But it's also a great way for anyone to think about the Haggadah in a new way. I was at a seder with many different people, and everyone was intrigued by it.

I must apologize for not writing this post before Pesach. But at least you can order it now for next year!

Monday, March 22, 2021

Can We Eat Locusts?

Today, after much demand, we started selling locusts at the Biblical Museum of Natural History! (They are currently available only for pickup from the museum or at pickup points in Ramat Beit Shemesh and Elazar). There's no better way to liven up your Pesach seder!

But how do we know that which are the kosher types of grasshoppers mentioned in the Torah? In an article that appears on the museum website (which I just updated to incorporate the material in this post), I explain how the traditions held by Jews from Yemen, Morocco and Algeria are reliable. I also explain that there is no Ashkenaz tradition against eating locusts; rather, there is simply the lack of any tradition, since there were no locust plagues in Ashkenaz lands. Accordingly, it is legitimate to rely on those who do have a tradition, just as we are allowed to accept traditions from communities regarding the kosher status of various birds, provided that we have no tradition against them.

The type of locust which has the most widespread tradition is the desert locust, Schistocerca gregaria. Although we raise those at the museum, we do not breed them in sufficient numbers to be able to sell them. Instead, the species that we are selling is the migratory locust, Locusta migratoria. According to Rav Yitzchak Ratzabi, the leading Yemenite halachic authority from Bnei Brak, the Yemenite tradition for the locust also includes this species, which itself was not found in Yemen, but which is identified by many Yemenites today as being the same as the one for which they possess a tradition. Still, as my colleague Professor Zohar Amar, author of Ha-Arbeh B'Mesorat Chazal, mentioned to me, it is potentially disturbing that the tradition for the migratory locust is weaker. Does this mean that there is reason to be suspicious of the migratory locust? While there is room for differing views here, I believe that the answer is no, for a variety of reasons.

Let's begin with the Torah itself, which states as follows:

"All flying creeping creatures, going upon all four, shall be an abomination to you. Yet these may you eat of every flying creeping thing that goes upon all four, those which have legs above their (other) legs, to leap with upon the earth. These you may eat: the arbeh after its kind, and the sela’am after its kind, and the chargol after his kind, and the chagav after its kind. But all other flying creeping things, which have four feet, shall be an abomination to you." (Leviticus 11:20-23)

It's difficult to definitively translate the four names which appear here. But, consider the following. Although there are over ten thousand species of grasshoppers, only a few dozen are locusts - i.e., grasshoppers that form swarms. And of the few dozen species of locusts, only four occur in Biblical lands! And of these four, by far the most common swarming locust is the desert locust, with second place being taken by the migratory locust, and the Egyptian locust and Moroccan locust coming in a very distant third and fourth place. It's unreasonable to the point of absurdity to claim that the desert locust and migratory locust are not in this list.

There's another point to be made here. Lo nitna Torah lemalachei hasharet, the Torah was not given to angels. And it certainly wasn't given for expert entomologists practicing a particular 21st-century taxonomical system developed by Linnaeus. As I explained in the introduction to The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom and in even greater detail in Chicken Wars, the Torah's system of taxonomy is completely different from that of modern zoology. In general, it is a much broader system of classification; the term atalef in the list of non-kosher winged creatures undoubtedly includes all 1400 species of bats, from tiny insect-eating pipistrelles to gigantic fruit-eating flying foxes (otherwise, it would mean that the non-listed bats are kosher!). The differences between the desert locust and the migratory locust are extremely subtle; the overall appearance is virtually identical. There is no way that one is in the Torah's list and one is not; in fact, they are undoubtedly the same min in the Torah. (Which also means that since there are four listed kosher types in the Torah, this must even include certain grasshoppers that are not locusts.)

This argument is made explicitly by Rav Yitzchak Ratzabi. He gives these and other reasons to forcefully argue that the reason why many Yemenite immigrants see no significant difference between the desert locust and the migratory locust (and are happy to eat both kinds) is that there is indeed no significant difference. They are both the same min of locust.

So, there are excellent reasons to be certain that both the desert locust and the migratory locust are in the Torah's list. Now let us turn to the Mishnah, which states as follows: 

“With locusts, anything that has four legs, and four wings, and jumping legs, and its wings cover most of it, (it is kosher). Rabbi Yosi said: And its name must be chagav.” (Mishnah, Chullin 3:7)

The Mishnah has changed from the Torah in not bothering to specify any particular names of types. Instead, it just gives various physical characteristics (which are presumably extrapolated from the common characteristics of the locusts that the Torah permits). Now, these characteristics are actually fulfilled by many, many types of grasshoppers (including all locusts). Rabbi Yosi's addition, that its name must be chagav, appears to mean that it must be identified as a locust rather than, say, a cricket (which also matches the physical characteristics given in the Mishnah), and perhaps this is also ruling out various grasshoppers that are not locusts. It should be noted that Rabbi Yosi's addition is accepted by many but by no means all Rishonim; the Rif, and other unnamed authorities cited by Rashba and Meiri, do not require it. Rambam only requires it in a case where the insect is unusual in appearance.

But perhaps Rabbi Yosi is referring to there being some particular tradition regarding the locust's identity? There are certainly those (such as Tur) who interpret it that way, and this is the basis for those who require a tradition to eat locusts. 

However, there are arguments against this interpretation of R. Yosi's words, and it seems that certain other Rishonim did not understand him this way. First of all, why would it be necessary? Second, if R. Yosi was requiring such a tradition regarding the locust's identity, then this would be replacing the view of the Tana Kama, not supplementing it. Third, when the Shulchan Aruch records this ruling, it gives the option of there either being a tradition that it is called chagav, or that there is simply the fact of it being called chagav (though in the Beis Yosef he seems to only present the option of mesorah). Finally, as Rav Chaim Kanievsky observes, Rambam, in his commentary to the Mishnah, explains R. Yosi's view to mean that it is called chagav or the equivalent in other languages. It simply means that it possess the common name of locust.

According to this approach, like with mammals and fish, all that is required is that the insect fulfills the stated requirements - one of which, the requirement of being called chagav, can be supplied either by tradition or by other means. (Even with birds, the Mishnah gives physical characteristics which suffice; the requirement for a tradition is a later stringency, which arose due to particular concerns relating to whether birds might be predatory. In addition, since the kashrus of birds is given in the Torah only by name, and these types are difficult to identify exactly, the Talmud mentions the concept of eating a bird for which there is a tradition. But the Talmud makes no mention of the requirement of a tradition for locusts.)

So how did it happen that it is widely considered obvious and unequivocal that one requires a tradition to eat locusts? It seems to me that what happened was as follows. It so happened that certain Jewish communities had a tradition to eat locusts (because they lived in parts of the world that had locust plagues), whereas other communities did not have a tradition to eat locusts (because they lived in regions of Europe where there were no such regular plagues). Gradually, the fact that some Jews had a tradition and others lacked it was transformed into the halachic reason why some Jews ate it and others didn't. In addition, there was the requirement of the name chagav, which some Rishonim (such as Tur and Rashba) describe as being satisfied by way of tradition, but this is not necessarily the only way to satisfy it; as noted, Rambam explained it as being a simple description of its common name.

But matters are more complicated than this. Because the Yemenite community itself did not eat all grasshoppers. They only ate those for which they had a mesorah. To quote Rav Kappach:

“The Jews of Yemen would collect grasshoppers and eat them. But not all of them; only the certain known types that they possessed a tradition from their ancestors, person to person, that they were kosher. And there were also known types with which the tradition from their ancestors was that they were non-kosher, even though they possessed all the signs of being kosher that are explained in the Torah and in halachah.” (Halichot Teiman)

So why did the Yemenites require a mesorah? This is especially puzzling in light of the fact that the Yemenites generally follow Rambam, and as we saw above, Rambam explained the requirement of the name chagav not in terms of a mesorah but rather as a factual description of its common name. I do not know the answer to this question, but when Rav Kappach and others mention types that were not eaten, this is referring to grasshoppers that are not locusts (since they ate the only locust that exists in Yemen). Accordingly, it's probably simply a matter of the requirement of it being a chagav evolving into a tradition of whether it is called chagav.

However, it's fortunate that the Yemenites did require a mesorah, because they actually have a mesorah (clearly for the desert locust, and as Rav Ratzabi forcefully argues, this includes the migratory locust), and that is helpful for people today who follow those Rishonim who do require a mesorah!

This is a complex topic, and there are legitimate grounds for those who do not eat locusts, involving issues relating to the nature of Orthodoxy and tradition (similar to the reasons why I do not wear techelet, even though there is little doubt that the chilazon is the Murex trunculus). To put it in other words: Keeping kashrut as an Orthodox Jew does not just mean eating the kosher creatures as specified in the Torah according to academic investigation; rather, it means eating the kosher creatures as specified by the historical halachic process, and also considering the practices and social norms of one's own halachic community. 

But there is no doubt that the desert and migratory locusts are the locusts described in the Torah as being kosher. And, according to several Rishonim, there is no halachic requirement of a tradition in the Mishnah or Gemara. The existence of traditions identifying certain locusts as kosher is one way to know which grasshoppers are kosher - and it is sufficient to identify both the desert and also the migratory locust as being kosher - but it is not necessarily the only way.


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Saturday, March 20, 2021

The Charedi Exterminator

Many of us occasionally have need for pest exterminators. Depending on which part of the world you live in, there are different pests that need exterminating. In America you might need termite or skunk exterminators. Here in Israel it's generally rodent or pigeon exterminators. But I was shocked a few years ago to see an advertisement for a "Charedi exterminator."

It might theoretically have been a political campaign advertisement by Avigdor Lieberman, but it wasn't. Instead, it was an advertisement for regular pigeon and rodent extermination - but by an exterminator who was himself charedi, and decided to advertise himself as such.

Why would someone advertise their profession by way of their religious affiliation? You'd never see an advertisement for a "secular exterminator" or a "dati-leumi exterminator." His byline brought the point home even stronger: מדביר משלנו - "An exterminator from among us!" Apparently he was appealing to people's tribal affiliation. He might not be a better or cheaper exterminator than the others, but he's one of us, so you should hire him!

Fascinating, the same type of campaign is being used by United Torah Judaism in the forthcoming elections. Apparently there are various charedi voters who have expressed disappointment in the charedi leadership. For some of them, it's because of the blatant failure of the leadership to protect its community from coronavirus, with mortality rates far exceeding the rest of Israel. (Apparently, for others, it's for precisely the opposite reason - that they did eventually concede to cooperation, instead of rejecting it entirely.) 

Be that as it may, the campaign to convince charedim to vote for UTJ is very straightforward. They don't bother arguing that they are serving Hashem's interests, or even their constituency's interests. The argument is simply this: We're charedi!

This campaign is directed at the highest levels. Rav Gershon Edelstein, when asked why people who were disappointed by the UTJ leadership during Covid should nevertheless vote for them, explained that although there may well be problems with UTJ, not voting for them is a declaration that "I am not charedi" and prevents a Kiddush Hashem.

Rabbi Yitzchak Adlerstein, in a post addressed to charedi voters, explains why they should not feel that tribal affiliation requires them to vote UTJ. Personally, I would say that there are two uncomfortable truths that charedim need to acknowledge. 

The first is that the real power in the charedi world is not wielded by chareidi Gedolei Torah. Rather, it is wielded rather by the people that control them, such as Yanky Kanievsky. Rav Edelstein claims that dati-leumi parties, aside from the fundamental flaw of not being charedi, don't follow the charedi Gedolim. Well, the charedi parties don't follow the Gedolim either. They simply manipulate the Gedolim to get the desired "guidance."

The second truth is that the charedi MKs are not out to either do Hashem's will or to help the long-term future of their constituents. Instead, they want to maintain their power and positions (and hefty MK paychecks) by helping the short-term interests of their constituents - even though this is diametrically opposed to their long-term interests. In other words, whereas the long term interests of not only the entire country but also the charedi community is for them to be able to get professional training and employment, the MKs instead want to get them money in order to coddle them into continuing the mass-kollel movement, and fight any attempts to change this system. If charedi voters really wanted to help their community, they would vote for Bennett, who has a plan to actually help them.

Unfortunately, very few charedi voters are going to acknowledge these truths. They're only human, after all. And for most humans, tribal affiliations trump everything.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

The Election Post

And, for the umpteenth but probably not the last time, it's elections again. I don't have any particularly strong opinions, and I think that good arguments can be made for many different choices, but my personal thoughts are as follows:

The fundamental question is: Bibi or Not Bibi? I used to be an enormous fan of his, and I'm eternally grateful for everything that he's done for the country, but it's time for him to go. He's gotten to the point where his own needs - specifically, staying out of prison - trump everything else. And he tries (and often succeeds) to run the country like an autocrat. Such a situation is intolerable.

I'm not a fan of voting for any small parties - it destabilizes the country - and there's only a few big ones. Lapid is all show and little substance. Saar is not a terrible choice, but seems to be just another old-style Likudnik. The person with the most outstanding real accomplishments and leadership skills, who will work hard to improve the country because he wants to actually help the country and not out of desire for personal aggrandizement, is Naftali Bennett. 

Another huge point in Bennett's favor is that he's the only one with a real, viable plan to solve the problem of the charedi destroying the economy - namely, to lower the age of the draft exemption. You can read a fascinating interview with him at this link: So, for whatever it's worth, my opinions is: vote Yamina!

Monday, March 15, 2021

Combating Corruption

Like many people here in Israel, I was absolutely stunned at the news that Yehuda Meshi-Zahav - a person that I described just two months ago as a national hero - has been exposed as a predator of the worst kind. (Though apparently it was pretty much an "open secret" in certain charedi circles for decades.) This horrific story follows on the heels of the news that the founder of the Borough Park Shomrim, Yanky Daskal, was arrested for a similar crime. 

What do these two men have in common? They were both the heads of large organizations which had a moral mandate. As such, they were in positions of power, and were also supposedly of an impressive moral character. Power corrupts; and assumptions of moral superiority enable this corruption to avoid suspicion and discourage victims from reporting it.

In any organization in which people have power, there needs to be checks and balances on that power. And this is equally true for organizations which themselves have a moral mandate. That's why every police force needs what's popularly known in England as an AC-12 - an anti-corruption unit.

Not every organization can have an anti-corruption unit. But another important tool is the combination of a free press and public accountability. These enable dirty deeds to be reported, and consequences to result.

It's for all these reasons that abuses of power are probably particularly prevalent in charedi society. There is a lethal combination of factors: people amassing great power over the lives of others; assumptions of moral superiority; the lack of a free press; and little public accountability.

Rabbi Sacks, in Convenant & Conversation for last week's parashah, notes that Chazal ascribed great importance not only to legislating procedures that would prevent corruption, but also to preventing things that could even give the suspicion of corruption. No less than Moshe Rabbeinu himself had to give a financial accounting to show that he had not misappropriated any Mishkan funds - and the accounting was done by independent auditors.

In the absence of contemporary rabbinic leadership with the courage and clout of Chazal, we have to enable other checks and balances - of which freedom of speech plays a crucial role. None other than Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Executive Vice-President of Agudath Israel of America, admitted that what really got them to start taking child abuse seriously was the exposés and criticisms in various blogs. Notwithstanding the many very real problems and dangers of the internet, it plays a crucial role in combating corruption.

The fundamental Torah principle, which we must always keep in mind, is Lo taamod al dam reyecha - Do not stand idly as your friend's blood is spilled. On an individual level, this requires us to speak up and take action to prevent corruption and abuse. On a societal level, this requires us to have systems and policies that enable corruption and abuse to be exposed and corrected - not suppressed by those who are more concerned about their society's image than by people's pain.

It has to be acknowledged that the so-called "laws" of Lashon Hara (which are really supposed to be ethical principles to be applied on a case-by-case basis) have been abused endlessly to stifle important criticism and whistle-blowing. For more on this, see this very important post, When Lashon Hara is a Mitzvah

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Sunday, March 14, 2021

Monsters and Matzos

Here's a terrific riddle for Rosh Chodesh Nissan!

On Rosh Chodesh, we recite Barchi Nafshi, which mentions leviathan - the whale. What is the connection between the relatively rare findings of ancient whale bones on the coast of Israel, and the large size of matza that many people eat on Seder night?

And the answer is...


(giving you time to guess)

... follows:

In areas such as north-western Europe, there was a large whaling industry. That's because they needed whale oil for lamps. But in Israel and the surrounding regions, they lit lamps from olive oil, and so there was never much of a demand for whaling. On other hand, because they didn't have olives in north-western Europe, not only did they need to hunt whales, but they also didn't know how big a kezayis was, and thus ended up with a large shiur of matzah!

What a great riddle for Seder night!

With Pesach approaching, it's kezayis season again. The monograph that I wrote on the evolution of the kezayis, from the size of an olive to a matzah ten times that size, seems to be the most popular piece that I have ever published. If you haven't read it, you can download it at this link. And it's also in my new book Rationalism vs. Mysticism, which you can purchase at this link.

Here is a list of other posts relating to this topic:

Matzah/Maror Chart for Rationalists - so that you, too, can have a chart!

The Popularity of Olives - exploring why this paper is so popular and yet hated by some.

Why On Earth Would One Eat A Kezayis?  - discussing the strange notion that one should aim to eat a kezayis of matzah on Seder night.

The Riddle of the Giant Kezayis Defense - wondering why many people would not accept that a kezayis is the size of an olive.

Maniacal Dishonesty About Olives - exposing an error-ridden critique that appeared in the charedi polemical journal Dialogue.

It's Krazy Kezayis Time! - discussing the view that one should eat a huge amount of matzah in a very short time in order to fulfill all opinions.

The Kezayis Revolution - announcing the fabulous sefer by Rabbi Hadar Margolin, which presents the same arguments that I brought but in a more yeshivish manner. He also brings an astonishing array of evidence that many recent charedi gedolim likewise held that a kezayis is very small, including even the Chazon Ish! Best of all, the entire sefer can be freely downloaded.

Meanwhile, the new Biblical Museum of Natural History is open for tours, and will be open over Pesach too. However, unless the Covid restrictions are further relaxes, we are extremely limited in how many people we can accommodate. So book your tour now! Visit for more details.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Stranger Things

I'd like to continue my review of Just Imagine!, a graphic novel about a fictitious universe "in which Eretz Yisrael was run solely according to Torah" and is facing the Covid pandemic.

In this ideal Eretz Yisrael, there are no secular Jews. That's because it's set in a fictitious world in which everyone accepts the divinity of Torah. But not only are there no secular Jews - there are also no dati-leumi Jews. And there don't appear to be any Sefardi Jews either. There's Ashkenazi Litvishe charedim and chassidim. Those are the only Torah Jews which exist in this ideal universe.

Actually, there is one exception. There's a professor who is a conspiracy theorist against vaccines. It's great that the book portrays this person as an unpleasant crank. But why is this lunatic the only person in the book who not only lacks a beard, but also wears a blue shirt and has a small blue kippah?!

(In case you're wondering - there ARE female characters in this universe. Not many - just one, who appears on one page. Still, that's infinitely more than you might accept, and perhaps we should be grateful for small mercies.)

But after finishing the book, I suddenly realized that there are two other type of people who are strangely absent from the entire book. Bear in mind that the bulk of the book is about governments meetings of charedi ministers and their discussions about the risks of coronavirus and what to do about it. And do you know who never appears? A medical expert!

That's right. The cabinet ministers are constantly discussing the dangers and arguing about what behavior is dangerous, and yet never once do they need an expert medical opinion! There are no physicians, no epidemiologists, no immunologists.

What is the reason for this? I wonder if this is because such a character is impossible to exist. In a world where everyone is charedi, there simply can't be any physicians. Because nobody goes to college!

Alternatively, and perhaps more likely, I think that it's because in the author's mindset, there is simply no need for such a role. Who needs experts? Everyone's an expert!

But it's the other conspicuously absent type of character that is even stranger.

There are no Gedolim.

When the cabinet first meets to figure out the sin that brought the virus, nobody thinks of asking the Gedolim. When they try to decide which is the primary spiritual hishtadlus that the medical hishtadlus needs to accompany, they don't ask the Gedolim. And when they decide to what extent the health precautions will infringe upon religious life, they don't ask the Gedolim. They just argue it out among themselves.

They do set up a "corona court" to decide various specific regulations. The Prime Minister agrees that "the court needs to represent all communities in Klal Yisrael," and thus selects "three judges, each one from a different community" (though all charedi, of course). He adds that questioning the authority of the court won't happen, because "Everyone must obey the decisions of the court, whether they agree with them or not!"

But this "corona court" is not The Gedolim. Because later in the book, when there's a question that vexes the cabinet - whether to delay weddings until after the pandemic - they don't ask the corona court. Instead, they decide that this is a question to be sent to Gedolei Yisrael. 

Several days later, they receive the answer: That there should indeed be weddings. The Gedolim, however, have not seen fit to give any guidance whatsoever on what the format of the weddings should be, and so the members of the cabinet - not the Gedolim, not the corona court, and without any input from medical experts - argue it out and make their own decisions as to the rules. And then they get a letter from the Gedolim to say that everybody has to obey these rules, without exception - even though the Gedolim had no say in what these rules are!

It's just so strange. The book takes as its premise that the Gedolim are the source of ultimate wisdom, and yet the charedi prime minister and cabinet ministers argue out the most major decisions themselves without bothering to ask the Gedolim. 

And the decisions are extraordinary. When the spread of the virus requires closures and severe limits on the number of people gathering indoors, they decide that "the exceptions will be shuls, chadarim, schools, yeshivos and kollelim." In those places, they only require plastic dividers and so on. And when later in the book, the pandemic grows even more severe, the cabinet decides that they must "close every place that is not essential for daily life" - which they clarify "obviously" does not include shuls, schools and yeshivos. And later, when it gets even worse and a full lockdown is required, because infection has gotten so bad that nobody can leave their home, the prime minister still clarifies that obviously this does not include closing yeshivos and kollels.

Why do the Gedolim play no part in the decision-making and guidance on these crucial issues? I can't even come up with a theory to explain the author's mindset. I'd welcome suggestions.

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Wednesday, March 10, 2021

The Strangest Book

An astonishing new book was just published. I've never seen anything like it. The book (originally in Hebrew, but I have the English edition) is an illustrated graphic novel for children, part of a series called Just Imagine! The other volumes in the series are about the chagim, but this volume is called Covid-19. The subtitle explains that that it is "An exciting, imaginary depiction of how the coronavirus pandemic might have been handled in Eretz Yisrael, if the government was run according to the eternal values of our Holy Torah." Sounds like a fascinating idea for a book, right?

The author is an unknown "M. Safra" - I'm guessing the presence of an initial rather than a first name indicates that the author is female. But the first page of the book presents a weighty stamp of approval from "The Committee For The Supervision of Reading Material," headed by Rav Yisroel Gans. And so it's worth taking seriously as a reflection of beliefs and norms in the charedi world.

The back cover gives an extensive description of the book: 

Dear Parents and Children,
We’ve been dealing with coronavirus, which has affected not only the entire world, but also each and every one of us, for over a year. We Jews know that a pandemic doesn’t just happen one fine day… It happens because the One Above sent it, and He sent it to wake us up!
And so, of course, the first thing for us to do is to make a cheshbon hanefesh, to examine our deeds and try to do better. We also daven and plead before Hakadosh Baruch Hu that it should pass — because davening will help more than anything.
During these complicated times, we are dealing not only with the pandemic itself, but also with many questions: What is our hishtadlus? And what if some of the rules and regulations mean that we have to change our usual ways of serving Hashem?
When addressing these questions and others like it, there are many different opinions. People are divided about what is the right thing to do. But the truth is that for us it makes no difference: we have rabbanim whom we can ask, and we act according to what they say. If you have a question about how to act in any situation, you go to your father or your rav and there’s your answer.
Beyond that, it’s important to understand that even though there are different opinions about exactly what to do, everyone agrees that we have an obligation to protect our health. And no one disagrees that we have an obligation to protect the lives of the people around us.
What does this mean for us? One thing is clear: If we had the zechus to have a world run according to da’as Torah, there would be no disagreements. We all would behave the same way, truly united as one!
The aim of this book, which shows what Eretz Yisrael would look like if the government was solely run according to Torah, is to bridge the gaps that have formed between different communities and promote the message of achdus, of unity. At the end of the day, we have the Torah to guide us, and we all want to do the will of Hakadosh Baruch Hu. On that we all agree!
And so, we will continue to do our best to act in the way the rabbanim tell us and to do Hashem’s will. At the same time, we daven and hope for the day when everything will be crystal clear, and there will be no place for disagreements anymore…

The book's goals initially appear to seem noble, and some of them certainly are. In general, the book seeks to encourage social distancing and mask-wearing and so on. But the first alarm bell that something was very, very off here, is a paragraph in the middle of the description above. Did you notice it? Here it is again:

One thing is clear: If we had the zechus to have a world run according to da’as Torah, there would be no disagreements. We all would behave the same way, truly united as one!

This paragraph is simply bizarre. Had it been speaking of a hypothetical scenario in which the world is run according to the clear Will of God - such as through the restoration of prophecy - that would be one thing. But this is not a book about Mashiach arriving. It's a book about a hypothetical Israel in which everyone is charedi and follows the Gedolim. And why on earth would that mean no disagreements?!?!?!  

After all, even today, when the charedim are a minority facing much opposition from the rest of the country, this doesn't force them to unite. The charedi Gedolim themselves disagree with each other about many things, because Torah itself does not generally present absolutely clear guidance on issues. And there is endless disagreement among charedim about whose Daas Torah to follow. (The fighting between Rav Shmuel Auerbach's camp and Rav Steinman's camp even led to violence, as did the fight in Ponovezh Yeshiva about who should be Rosh Yeshiva. Everyone involved was following Daas Torah.) 

And when it comes to Covid, there is likewise enormous differences of opinion among "Daas Torah" as to what the correct response should be. There's Gedolim such as Rav Gershon Edelstein at one end of the spectrum, who largely believes in taking precautions, and then there's the Chassidic Rebbes, many of which do not believe in taking any precautions, and then there's the House of Rav Chaim Kanievsky, which seems to issue conflicting edicts depending on who's motivating Yanky at any given moment.

Even weirder is that the book acknowledges this reality. It speaks about how its goal is "bridging the gaps that have formed between communities" and how we "davven for the day when there will be no place for disagreements anymore." So why on earth does it present a fictitious scenario in which everyone follows Daas Torah, and pretend that it's that which would change everything and bring unity? How would that suddenly cause all the Gedolim to agree with each other? The whole premise of the book is bizarre.

Still, it's enlightening. It reveals a belief/ misdirection that problems are a result of everyone except the charedim. "If only everyone was charedi, then our problems would be solved!"

And this is just the back cover. When you get to the content of the book, things get much, much stranger and extremely disturbing. Stay tuned...


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Monday, March 8, 2021

Unorthodox Unorthodox: The Sequel

The response to my previous post, Unorthodox Unorthodox, about the extraordinary former Satmar girl who overcame the odds to become a social worker and now a medical student, was overwhelmingly positive. And I don't just mean in terms of people liking what I wrote and sharing it on Facebook. Many dozens of people contributed to Nisi Goldstein's fundraising campaign to help her through medical school. I received the following message from Nisi:

Just an update: I feel so honored and humbled. Your article is leading to many positive and welcoming responses from people. It's opening my eyes to see how big and diverse and loving our Jewish family really is. I have you to thank for launching this snowball effect. Also, a good friend of mine is a staunch follower of yours and he has advised me not to read any of the comments because you have a couple of haters too. On that note I just want to commend you for speaking truths in the face of the hate. It can be brutal. I'm sure you don't need me to tell you, but please keep doing that. It is so important. I'm also planning to speak with Efrat - there's a 1.5 year old organization for Jewish orthodox people in medicine (don't necessarily have to be orthodox to join). They offer seminars for premed orthodox students and health education in the charedi community. I want to get on board with them and do good things.

Kudos to all those people who donated, or who reached out with offers of hospitality or other assistance!

Some people, unfortunately, were positively hostile to my post. There were some extremely derogatory comments that I did not allow to be posted - I'm fine with people insulting me, but not with them insulting others. One person raged against Nisi's non-tzniyus attire and loose hair(!). Another cited a verse from Malachi: "We account the arrogant happy: they have indeed done evil and endured; they have indeed dared God and escaped.” I'm pretty sure that none of these people experienced growing up in Satmar.

Several others objected that since she is not currently observant, observant Jews should not be supporting her medical studies; they should only support her if she was still Satmar or at least observant. Apparently they are under the misconception that the only reason to support someone is if they carry your values. I wonder if they would equally say that non-observant Jews should never donate money to Orthodox Jews? Furthermore, it's precisely because of the problems of certain Orthodox communities that people like Nisi need extra support. If you consider Satmar to be broadly in the same tent as yourself, then you also have a responsibility to help those that have been harmed by Satmar.

But there's a much more direct reason to help Nisi and people like her, and it relates to another objection that some people raised. They asked how I can be supportive of helping a non-observant medical student and simultaneously opposed to supporting kollel students. The answer is very simple.

Supporting a medical student is helping someone who will be majorly contributing to the society. This is all the more true for someone like Nisi Goldstein, who does not plan to be a private physician for the rich and becoming rich, but rather took an oath to be a compassionate healthcare provider specifically for people from under-served communities. And the fact that doing this required overcoming huge obstacles that were created for her by her Orthodox Jewish community makes her case even more compelling. 

In contrast, the average kollel student (not someone training to become an educator) is not going to be contributing to society. On the contrary; they will be draining resources from it. And they plan to raise children who will likewise not contribute to society, and who will drain further resources from it. There's no comparison.

I would like to stress again that the people with the negative comments were in the minority. They were vastly outnumbered by those who responded positively. As Nisi wrote, this shows "how big and diverse and loving our Jewish family really is."

You can read more about Nisi and support her at this link. To quote Nisi's mantra from when she was in premed and was wondering if she could ever catch up with others: אויב יענער קען קענסטו אויך. Which means, If someone else can do it, so can you!

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Saturday, March 6, 2021

Unorthodox Unorthodox

Over the years I've met some unusual and impressive people, but our guest this past Shabbos really took the cake. She's a medical student who, in scrubs and jeans, looks no different than any other medical student. But Nisi Goldstein is the only female medical student in the history of the world to have grown up in Satmar.

Most people's image of girls who break away from Satmar comes from the immensely popular Netflix series Unorthodox. And yet Nisi's story could not be more different. There's a very orthodox view of what unorthodox means, and it's not Nisi.

The seventh child of thirteen (now that's what I call a "middle child"), Nisi grew up in Williamsburg, which was a different world. She didn't speak English until she was taught it in school. The biggest cultural transition in her life was from Satmar to Beis Yaakov in Israel - bigger than her subsequent transition from Beis Yaakov student to medical student! When she tells people in Satmar that she is studying to become a doctor, they assume that she is misspeaking and means nurse; they are not accustomed to the idea that women can become doctors.

What caused her to break away? Nisi told us that the very first thing which shook her, as a young girl, was when Satmar had its Great War between the Rebbe's sons, Aharon and Zalman, over who should succeed the Rebbe. All of a sudden, everything broke in two - her community and even her school. All of a sudden she wasn't allowed to socialize with half of her friends. This made her realize that something wasn't right.

As she grew up, she was curious about the world beyond the extremely narrow confines of Satmar. Watching any videos in Satmar was, for the most part, banned while she was growing up. For special school events, there were slideshows of photos accompanied by narration. She loved these (and says that they displayed great artistic creativity), but she wanted more. Surreptitiously, she was able to watch DVDs of musical performances by frum (but non-Satmar) women. Nisi was thrilled when, over Shabbos, we were visited by our friend and neighbor Dr. Kerry Bar-Cohn, who, under the stage name "Rebbetzin Tap," has produced amazing musical videos. We were laughing about how notwithstanding how far Nisi has come since then, she was star-struck to see her childhood superstar! Kerry herself served as a role-model for Nisi in showing that "you can be anything."

As she progressed through high school, Nisi was clearly not fitting in to the Satmar mold. Here's the point at which you'd expect to hear that everyone was attempting to force her to accept that she has to toe the line and live her life in full obedience to the Satmar way. But that is not what happened. To be sure, she had her stresses and difficulties with people in that community. But they encouraged her to try a new path and go to Beis Yaakov in Israel. I know that Beis Yaakov sounds extremely frum to many of us, but coming from Satmar, as I mentioned earlier, it was an absolutely radical move. Satmar views Beis Yaakov as being a severely inferior form of Judaism, so it was incredible that they supported her transition.

Here's something else intriguing. While Satmar looks down on all other branches of Orthodoxy, Satmar itself is very different from Litvishe Orthodoxy in that the men do not go to kollel. They all work, while their wives raise the children, in a much more traditional lifestyle. At one point, when Nisi was in a rebellious stage in Beis Yaakov, she threatened her parents that she wanted to marry a guy in kollel!

Eventually Nisi ended up training as a social worker at Wurzweiler in New York. But as she was completing her studies, her interest was suddenly triggered in the biological sciences - which she had never learned about in Satmar. (Ironic aside - although I'm the director of a natural history museum and I have a PhD, I too have never in my life taken a formal class in biology, since the grammar school that I attended in Manchester was too frum to teach it.) And so she enrolled in medical school, taking classes in Israel, but she will be returning to the US for residency. She would like to serve in the chassidic community in New York and implement positive change in this way. At the moment, aside from her medical studies, she is a madricha at a home for girls at risk.

Unlike what you might expect, Nisi does not hate Satmar. She is very critical of the leadership and many aspects of the lifestyle, but she maintains that the people there in general are just as nice as everyone else, and the community engages in tremendous chesed. She has a positive relationship with her family - her mother is immensely proud of her becoming a doctor - and she goes back regularly to visit.

Over the years, Nisi drifted a long way from her roots, and she traveled extensively around the world. But she says that in the various exotic locations that she visited, Chabad houses were incredible. They made her realize that she does want to be Jewishly connected. She is not yet sure what form she wants that to take, but she is young and still figuring things out. Meanwhile, she sent me the following lovely text after Shabbos:

Thank you so much for having me. It truly was a wonderful Shabbat. It inspired me to see if I can go to more Jewish families in the future to experience healthy Judaism. 

When I sent her this post for her approval, she also asked me to tone down parts that were too critical of Satmar!

Meanwhile, Nisi has a GoFundMe page to help support her through medical school. Helping create a doctor - and not just any doctor, but the world's first Satmar-raised female doctor - is an excellent way to invest in making a difference to the world. You can support Nisi's education at this link.

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Monday, March 1, 2021

Lovely People Who Contribute To Deaths

Many of us are familiar with staunch antivaxxers - those who believe that Covid was created by Bill Gates and others to reduce and control the world's population, and that the vaccine serves to implant microchips in our bodies for some nefarious purposes. It's pointless to try to to engage with such conspiracy theorists.

But recently I've become aware of a different strain of antivaxxer - which we can perhaps term a "soft" antivaxxer. These are not crazy conspiracy theorists - they are lovely normal rational people. Such people do not consider themselves to be antivaxxers at all, and are not against all vaccines. They may even be in favor of the covid vaccine, for certain people who are at high risk of dying from covid. But they are against the covid vaccine being recommended for the general population. They provide all kinds of arguments that it has not been sufficiently tested and that it could cause harm that far outweighs the benefits.

The problem is that the arguments that they provide against the vaccine are invariably deeply flawed - and yet they presented in a seemingly convincing way. And so I would like to alert people to some of the misunderstandings and even deceptions which are used. (See too this article for an expose of an antivaxxer presenting misinformation and masquerading as a non-antivaxxer.)

1. "There is no scientific data about the long-term effects of the vaccine."

This is an example of a statement which is technically true but completely misleading. It's equally true to say that there is no scientific data about the long-term effects of the new flavor of Pringles. But the relevant point is whether there is reason to be concerned about the long-term picture. In this case, since mRNA molecules do not change DNA and break down quickly, and vaccine side-effects are seen within several weeks, medical experts (as opposed to Facebook experts) have concluded that there are no specific grounds for either short- or long-term concern. On the other hand, there are most certainly very strong grounds for concern about both the short-term and long-term effects of Covid, which in its newer strain is much more contagious and harmful.

2. "People just want to ask questions! Why are you trying to silence them? What are you trying to hide?"

The word "question" has two very different meanings. One meaning is to seek information in order to fill a gap in one's knowledge. Nobody is trying to silence these kind of questions about the vaccine. But the other meaning of "question" is to challenge. And that involves insisting on various claims. Since these claims are usually false and even dangerous and sometimes lethal, then yes, it is perfectly legitimate and appropriate for these to be forcefully rebuffed, just like any false and dangerous claim.

3. "Israel's population is being used as a lab experiment for clinical trials! The CEO of Pfizer himself even said so!"

This is an utter distortion of reality. The clinical trials for the safety of the vaccine have already taken place and are finished, with perfectly satisfactory results. What the Pfizer CEO spoke about was how Israel is a lab for seeing the results on the economy and health indices of an entire country once most of the country has received its vaccine.

4. "The FDA itself have not approved it! They only gave it emergency authorization! This shows that they themselves have concerns!"

This is an incorrect inference. There is a formal protocol, established many years ago, for vaccines to obtain formal approval. This includes the vaccine having been used for a certain amount of time and clinical studies on its effects on children and pregnant women. When the FDA was asked to approve the vaccine, these protocol requirements were not yet satisfied. But meanwhile the FDA was able to authorize it based on the fact that it went through all three phases of clinical trials and passed with flying colors. The benefits are overwhelming, it had been tested on tens of thousands of people without any serious ill effects, and no particular concerns are even theoretically suspected to actually exist. Since then, it has been successfully used for hundreds of millions of people, with an excellent success rate, and there are still no particular concerns.

5. "I just want to play it safe and not take it. That's my right!"

If you're literally going to lock yourself indoors and never have contact with anyone, then that's fine. But the reality is that everybody has some sort of contact with others in which Covid can be spread. If you're not vaccinated, then you are likely to contribute to this spread. Everyone else, entirely reasonably, wants the pandemic to be over so that people can stop overloading the hospitals and dying, and everyone can get back to work.

6. "People are entitled to make their own decisions, even wrong ones. We have to respect differences of opinion and respect everyone."

A lot of people say this, but nobody actually believes it. After all, we don't respect the opinions of  flat-earthers or antisemites. And while the former are relatively harmless, the latter are a danger to society, and we forcefully rebuff them and sometimes even try to silence them. Those who justify not taking the vaccine, making false arguments about the dangers of the vaccine, are a contributing cause to people who do not take the vaccine and die from Covid.

And this is not some theoretical faraway concern. Every single day in Israel, thousands of people are contracting coronavirus. Some of these people will get very sick, with long-term effects. Some of them will die. And yet every single one of these people had the option of taking the vaccine but did not do so. Why? Generally, it is because they were influenced by those who spread fears about it. 

One of the most famously tragic victims was Osnat Ben-Shitrit, a young woman who died of Covid last week, along with her 30-week old fetus that was also infected with coronavirus. It was reported that her brother-in-law was "the leader of a social-media group consisting of thousands of fellow anti-coronavirus-vaxxers. Nor was he the only spreader of fake news who caused her to reject the vaccine. According to her uncle, Uri Sa’adon, she was 'brainwashed' by 'all kinds of clowns playing doctor with people’s lives.' Had she not listened to them, he said, his niece would still be here with her husband, caring together for what were supposed to have been the couple’s five kids." While she was in hospital, she begged her friends to get vaccinated, and since her death, her family are now likewise begging people to be vaccinated.

It's fine and understandable to have questions or concerns or anxieties about the vaccine. But what you need to do is consult someone who knows what he/she is talking about. Such a person is not the anti-vaxx doctor that you found on the internet, who represents a fringe crank element. Rather, it's the mainstream medical establishment, or your personal physician. And then accept what they say - or if not, then keep quiet. If you raise concerns with others about the safety of the vaccine, based on your non-expert opinion and misunderstandings of the topic and anxieties, then you share responsibility for the deaths that are taking place every day. You might be a lovely person with many wonderful accomplishments, but this will not be one of them.


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A Different Kind of Chocolate

With Covid having prevented my wife and I from celebrating a significant anniversary milestone, we finally took a long-overdue vacation - to...