Wednesday, September 29, 2021

A Bold Leader in Torah and Science

The Jewish People lost a bold rabbinic leader over chag with the passing of Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler, ztz"l. He was a rare individual with connections to both the yeshiva world and the scientific enterprise. In addition, he possessed a truly rare attribute of courageously speaking his mind, and not being intimidated into having to conform with the yeshivishe velt

I certainly had my share of disagreements with Rav Tendler over the years, whether with regard to his rejection of the common ancestry of animals, his campaign against the kashrut of swordfish or his identifying the Biblical shafan as the llama. Still, we had a warm personal relationship, and his contribution to the basic notion of bridging Torah with the modern world is immense. 

Over the years I had several conversations with him, but one in particular was so significant that I took notes at the time. It was on January 15th, 2005 - right in the heat of the great Torah-Science controversy. Rabbi Tendler told me that “my shver (father-in-law, i.e. Rav Moshe Feinstein) always said that Daas Torah is meaningless unless its backed up with a Shach and a Taz (i.e. that a rav’s pronouncement means nothing unless it's backed up by sources)." He also had some even stronger words to say about the popular approach to Daas Torah, but I'm not sure if it's appropriate to share them. 

 At that time, he also made an exceptionally generous offer. He said that I should collect a list of a hundred signatures of rabbanim who endorse my approach to Torah and science, and that he would be happy to be the first signatory. Those who remember the mass hysteria and witch-hunt of 2005 can appreciate just how brave this was! (I decided not to proceed with this approach, for reasons that I do not exactly remember now.) 

Rav Tendler has a particularly special zechus. He shares responsibility for dramatically improving (and in many cases saving) the lives of literally hundreds of people, by ruling that brain death is death and thus enabling organ transplantation. How many people can claim such a zechus? May his memory be blessed. 


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Monday, September 20, 2021

Shaken By The Lulav

There are many aspects of Judaism which make people feel uncomfortable. The mitzvah of arba minim sometimes falls into that category. Shaking a bunch of branches ritualistically feels not just mystical, but even pagan. Yet from a rationalist perspective, it's not about influencing metaphysical forces, but rather summoning certain ideas in one's own mind. Still, in today's urbanized society which is very far removed from the plant kingdom and the agricultural cycle, even that may feel somewhat "alien" to some people.

But I'd like to suggest an entirely different way of framing things. There is a tendency to miss the forest for the palm trees. Why not focus on the bigger picture?

A recent article in the New York Times stated that "Many Palestinians consider the Aqsa compound the embodiment of Palestinian identity, the animating force behind the aspiration for a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem.” Indeed, that is true. However, the Aqsa compound has been the embodiment of Palestinian identity for a couple of decades. What the New York Times failed to mention is that the Temple and Jerusalem has been the embodiment of Jewish identity for two orders of magnitude greater than that. 

Of course, there is am abundance of archeological evidence for the ancient Jewish presence in the Land of Israel. But sometimes, there are finds which provide particularly striking reminders.

A few years ago, the bronze coins in this photo were found in a cave in Jerusalem, near Temple Mount. As you can see, a number of them bear images of the arba minim!

These coins have been very precisely dated. They are one thousand, nine hundred and fifty years old, give or take a few years. The cave in which they were found was used by Jews who were hiding from the Roman siege, up until the destruction of the Second Temple and the city of Jerusalem. The coins bear an inscription, “For the Redemption of Zion.”

I don't know about you, but personally I was shaken to see a visual record of how our ancestors, two thousand years ago, were waving the lulav and esrog, just as we do today. And they were doing so at a time when Jerusalem was being destroyed by the might of the Roman Empire, while having faith in the eventual redemption of Zion. And here are we, two thousand years later, when Rome is a nothing and Israel is a thriving country with extraordinary achievements.

Jewish identity is incredibly ancient and precious. It has survived against numerous attempts to destroy it - attempts which from a "rational" perspective would have seemed overwhelmingly likely to succeed. There are still attempts to obliterate the Jewish People, nowadays via erasing our ancient connection to our homeland. This Sukkos, while we are shaking the lulav and esrog, let us fell ourselves shaken to contemplate how we are participating in something that our ancestors have done for millennia (and for many of us, in the very same country). How many people in the world can claim such a thing?

Wishing you all a chag kosher v'sameach - and if you are fortunate enough to be spending it in the Holy Land, come take a tour of the new Biblical Museum of Natural History!


Monday, September 13, 2021

From Bais Yaakov to MD, Conclusion

From Bais Yaakov to MD: 

A Post-Charedi Bais Yaakov Graduate Speaks Out 

Guest post by Dr. Efrat Bruck

Part Four (read part one here, part two here, and part three here)


7. The Daas Torah-Hashgachah-Bashert Triad that conveniently keeps people in. 

Daas Torah, as understood by charedi society, is central to its viability and function. It means that those who have studied Torah, especially to the exclusion of other secular subjects, have if not direct ruach hakodesh, the optimal ability to answer questions both halachic and non-halachic. I’m using hashgachah loosely here to refer to the general concept of things happening with the intention of pushing our life in a particular direction and bashert as referring to large events, like the person you mar
ry, the job you land etc… If you put these three concepts together, as interpreted by charedi ideology, you end up with an extremely convenient way to keep people in the charedi fold. 

I went to a Seminary that even by charedi standards would be considered very right-wing. I was miserable and while I wasn’t clinically depressed, I came very close to it. Instead of acknowledging that I was in an ill-suited environment due to circumstances that were beyond my control, and instead of focusing on how when year was over, I would be able to choose a more appropriate environment for my well-being, I found myself doing what I was taught by all my high school teachers. I decided that it was bashert for me to have gone to that seminary, and it must have been so that I can “grow”. I doubled down on my learning, tznius, and emunah, pushing myself further into what was actually causing my misery.

In my early 20’s I dated a young man who attended a charedi Yeshivah, but had hashkafos that were not quite “proper”. He had a rationalist bent and told me scandalous things, for example, that the Chazon Ish’s medical knowledge was not from his Torah-learning, but from his having read many medical textbooks in his youth. He also admitted to having watched a PG-13 movie the other day. When family members found out, they tried aggressively to push me away from this shidduch. They told me to go ask Daas Torah, which I did. The Rav’s position was very clear. This young man was poisonous. “Do you know what happened in Spain in 1492?” he said to me. “All those Jews who tried to ‘understand’ everything rationally converted to Christianity. It was those with ‘simple emunah’ who chose to leave.” Then he went on to tell me what I speak about in #1, that men who watch movies make terrible husbands because they have a warped view of women and “you can never satisfy them in the bedroom”.

What can a 21-year old girl say to that? Our prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until we are 25, so today I give myself some grace for my decision, but of course I dropped the shidduch immediately. I was consoled by something we had learned back in Seminary. It’s all bashert. Which Rav’s doorstep you land on. How he understands your question. What his answer is. It was all meant to be and for my best. That was the answer we repeatedly got when we asked: “How can two people come to a Rav with the same exact question and get two different answers?”

This story repeated itself again when I was 23. Similar type of shidduch, I went to ask a Rav #2, and because the boy’s hashkafos were somewhat out-of-bounds with charedi ideology, the Rav decided that the boy wouldn’t be a good father - “modern boys like him don’t prioritize their families” – (see #1 again) and “he won’t say divrei Torah at the Shabbos table.” The 3rd time this happened (I had just turned 25!) I went back to Rav #2. The Rav listened and said, “The only way this shidduch would work is if this young man doesn’t follow his [non-charedi] Rosh Yeshivah and learns to be normal and fit in with the frum velt.” 

It was like a bolt of lightning lit the neurons in my brain on fire all at once. It finally clicked. He, the Rav, was normal, frum, and real. Everyone outside of those boundaries was not a normal frum Jew. The egocentricity of it all stared me in the face, and I realized that this was no longer an isolated incident, but a deeply ingrained pattern. I also started to connect the Daas-Torah-hashgachah-bashert dots; you have a problem that challenges charedi boundaries, you go to Daas Torah who will make sure you stay safely in those boundaries, and then it was all bashert. I politely ended the conversation. I was done with Daas Torah making decisions for me. I married that boy a few months later.

The truth is, my doubts about Daas-Torah were sown 2 years prior when I spent a summer in Israel. I volunteered to help stay with the wife of a Gadol a few times a week, as both she and the Gadol were advancing in their age and needed 24/7 assistance. I was there during the hours that people came to ask the Gadol questions. He was hard of hearing and the entire process was very taxing for him. The gabbai would speak loudly right into his ear and sometimes, even then, he wasn’t able to process what was being said. One day, a women came in, and was trying to ask if she can read “secular books” to help her son who was diagnosed with ADHD and struggling in school. The gabbai tried to explain the question, but it was obvious that the only part the Gadol was able to grasp was the “secular books”. He waved his hands assertively and said, “secular books aren’t good”. And that was that. The woman walked out and I can recall the pained, desperate look on her face to this moment. I wanted to run after her and say, “Go ask someone else, the Rav doesn’t hear well!” I was angry at the Gabbai for not taking responsibility for the situation and I’m also angry at myself for not telling the woman anything. 

It was also during that summer that I went to speak to a Gadol about my disappointment at not being allowed to learn Gemara. He told me, “This is how Hashem made the world and there’s no reason to question it.” My respect for his Torah scholarship, leadership, and other accomplishments were not necessarily diminished. But a special, divinely-inspired answer - that was not. 

Somehow, I had experiences that made me question the Daas-Torah-hashgachah-bashert triad. But it is an extremely effective way to keep people contained within charedi society, even when there are significant elements of the lifestyle that are bothering them. 

My story is not unique. I have heard many examples of people who were impacted by Daas Torah swaying them on major life decisions that were not tied to any halachic questions. Whether or not the current charedi version of Daas Torah was instituted intentionally or not is debatable, but it has become an integral pillar of charedi society and remains vital to its function. How else do you systematically keep people contained in a structure that relies on insularity and a set of ideas that is challenged when they poke their heads out of the bubble? There must be checkpoints to guard people’s exits. What I describe here is an example of how Daas Torah personally affects people’s lives on a micro level, but there are also hugely significant effects on a societal, or macro, level that warrant a dedicated discussion of their own.

About the Author:
Efrat Bruck, MD, graduated from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City and is now an anesthesiology resident at the Mount Sinai Hospital. Before medical school, she taught Judaic studies, Hebrew, and Biology to 1000 now-alumni of Be’er Hagolah Institutes, in Brooklyn, NY. Dr. Bruck has worked as a content specialist for Khan Academy and created over 30 MCAT preparation videos on topics in molecular biology, DNA, and genetics that have also recently been translated into foreign languages.  Her videos have been published on the AAMC (American Association of Medical Colleges) website, Khan Academy, and YouTube, accruing millions of views on the latter. Dr. Bruck has published research in Nature, the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology, and Obstetrics and Gynecology.
Dr. Bruck founded and leads the JOWMA PreMed Society that aims to advance Jewish women, from all backgrounds, in medicine. Dr. Bruck is a fierce advocate for premed students from insular and underrepresented backgrounds and strives to provide them with the resources and tools necessary to compete. ( She was among two out of 200 graduating MDs, PhDs, and MD/PhDs at Sinai’s recent commencement to be awarded the Patricia Levinson Award for the Advancement and Inclusion of Women in Medicine. Dr. Bruck, along with her colleagues at JOWMA, is also currently in the process of constructing a cultural competency curriculum that will help healthcare professionals in New York City hospitals provide culturally sensitive medical care to Jewish populations across the entire spectrum of Orthodoxy.   
Dr. Bruck’s experiences in education, acceptance to nearly 10 US MD programs, and service on the admissions committee of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai have led her to have a highly successful track record helping premeds navigate the medical school application process. She is the founder and CEO of MDInspire, a medical school admissions consultancy that provides professional consulting for fees that are reasonable and a fraction of the standard costs. Dr. Bruck specializes in helping people weave their stories seamlessly through their application, building stellar personal statements and activities sections, interview preparation, and coaching students on how to study smarter, not harder. For more information, please visit:
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not reflect the opinions or positions of JOWMA.

Sunday, September 5, 2021

The Things We Discussed in 5781

It occurred to me that by expanding the links on the right, I could create an index of all the posts on this blog this past year. The major topic was Coronavirus and the various theological and societal Orthodox Jewish responses, along with the Meron tragedy, both of which had significant connections to the rationalist vs. non-rationalist perspectives. Other significant topics were the Gaza War, different types of UnOrthodox Jews, supporting people in kollel, elections, and trying to understand partisanship and various other biases. Then there were the usual eclectic range of topics, from leviathans to locusts to the Karate Kid to Noah's Ark. I hope that you gained from these discussions, and if you'd like to express your appreciation and help support inspiring and educating people about the relationship between Torah and the natural sciences, please make a donation to the Biblical Museum of Natural History at this link

Wishing you all a sweet, happy, healthy, and successful new year, and may we all be inscribed in the Book of Life!

Friday, September 3, 2021

How to Avoid Teshuva for Negligent Homicide

It's Elul, Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur are approaching, it's the season of teshuvah. And Mishpacha magazine's special Rosh HaShanah edition has a feature cover story which seeks to whitewash negligent homicide.

"No Other Answer," which you can read online here, is a puff-piece for Toldos Aharon. It's about how the Rebbe of Toldos Aharon, Rav Dovid Kahn, responded to the Meron tragedy. He lives in a "tunnel of emunah, focused on deep, otherworldy levels and realms of the Oneness of Hashem and perfection of His every action." And his message about Meron is that "there is no place here for understanding... We can’t understand Hashem’s decrees, but our job isn’t to figure it out..."

No other answer? No understanding of what happened? Our job isn't to figure it out??

Our job is most certainly to figure it out, and fortunately the answer is blindingly obvious. Of course, we can't understand the ultimate mystery of why God lets bad things happen to good people, nor why providence selects some people and not others. But we certainly know why a lot of people died in Meron! It's not some kind of mystery; people warned for years that it was a disaster waiting to happen. As mankind has learned from numerous tragedies, you can't safely arrange an event for many thousands of people without complicated safety protocols, which is why many countries (including Israel) have very strict such protocols. But at Meron, a combination of askanim, rabbis, rebbes and charedi MKs made sure that all these safety protocols would either be politically overruled or ignored.

It's particularly obtuse and/or evil for Toldos Aharon to speak about it being an incomprehensible divine decree. After all, this particular tragedy happened in a passageway which Toldos Aharon built illegally. And the police have already questioned two "operations officers” for Toldos Aharon on suspicion of negligent homicide. It remains to be seen precisely how the blame will be shared, but it is absolutely clear that the blame is on people who bypassed the normal safety measures!

Imagine. A homeowner builds a balcony without a maakeh (protective fence). Then he crowds it with visitors, and one falls off and dies. And the homeowner says, "Oy, it's an incomprehensible act of God! We have to have faith! There is no other explanation!" Are we going to praise such a person as a magnificent baal emunah?!

Mishpacha knows better than this. As I noted previously, the publisher wrote an editorial a while back in which he acknowledged some of the primary factors for the Meron tragedy:

...Unless chareidim recognize the vital role of the public sector, and learn to cooperate with the relevant government entities, they cannot consider themselves free of guilt. Our tzibbur has been blessed with an abundance of organizations staffed by experienced people with very good intentions, but when an event reaches dimensions such as Lag B’Omer in Meron, our existing manpower and infrastructure are far from sufficient...

We also cannot accept violations of the law that affect the public or public areas, in favor of personal or communal interest. We cannot allow ourselves to become the no-man’s-land of the state, in which everyone who wants to stick his hand in the pot can manage his affairs as he wishes, without considering the consequences. We must not, as a tzibbur, absolve ourselves of all responsibility as we shift the blame elsewhere.

So why does Mishpacha give Toldos Aharon a PR opportunity to do exactly that, and to whitewash the human responsibility? The reason is presumably that they are happy to publish an inspirational cover story for their Rosh HaShanah edition. Alas, doing so is sending exactly the wrong message about teshuvah. It's not about feeling inspired; it's about owning up to one's sins. And negligent homicide resulting in 45 deaths is a pretty serious one.

Over the last year, a disproportionate amount of charedim have died due to charedi separatism - believing that they do not need to conform to the laws of wider, secular society. This includes the deaths in Meron, Karlin-Stolin, and the disproportionate number of deaths in the charedi community from Covid. Mishpacha, and everyone else, needs to be making sure that the message is learned.

(Thanks to my friend Rabbi Scott Kahn of the Orthodox Conundrums group for pointing this out. If you'd like to subscribe to this blog via email, use the form on the right of the page, or send me an email and I will add you.)

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

They're Not Murderers Or Nazis

As a non-American, it was extremely disturbing for me to see the extraordinary rift growing over the last few years between Americans of different political persuasions. I know people on both sides, convinced that Trump was the best/worst president ever, and that people opposing/supporting him were morally bankrupt.

A similar rift is developing on the extremes of the vaccine issue. The mainstream scientific view is that vaccines are safe and should be used by adults, and that masks somewhat reduce the chances of spreading infection; separately, there are also policy decisions regarding how much to impose such things as vaccines, masks and lockdowns and how to weigh them up against other factors (especially regarding children). There are those who disagree with various scientific aspects, or who are misinformed on science aspects, or who disagree with various policy decisions. The extreme view on one side is that anyone who is against the vaccine or who believes that the minimal risks of Covid to children do not justify taking precautions, is utterly evil and should be labelled as a murderer. Conversely, the extreme view on the other side is that anyone who wants to impose precautions, especially on children, that have very little effect of limit infection, is utterly evil and is acting like the Nazis.

I just finished reading an absolutely incredible book that helps enormously with making sense of such things. It's called The Righteous Mind, by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, and the subtitle is Why Good People Are Divided By Politics And Religion - to which one could add, And Coronavirus. The book has enormous ramifications for many different topics that have been discussed here, which I plan to discuss in future posts. For now, I will just describe one of the main themes. 

The author explains how, as a left-wing atheist, he used to think that right-wing and religious people are foolish and evil. However, after studying various cultures in different parts of the world, he realized that morality is a much more complicated topic than he had assumed. Rather than there being a single linear scale along which one can measure good/bad, he identifies six different spheres of morality: Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, Sanctity/Degradation, and Liberty/Oppression. These can sometimes conflict with each other, and there are also differences in the relative weight that people attribute to these different spheres - which has to do not only with cultural variations, but also genetic makeup.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. And if you think that it sounds like a stupid book, because the people on the other side of the political/ religious/ coronavirus spectrum really are stupid and evil, then this is all the more reason why it is important for you to open your mind and read it.

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Tzedakah: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

How do you tell apart a good charity from a bad one? It can be very difficult to know who is actually honest. But the first step is to be aw...