Thursday, September 22, 2022

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 aware of what actually differentiates a good charity from a bad one.

Last year, an explosive piece of investigative journalism in The Marker revealed that in the high-profile campaigns about how so-and-so has kidney disease and suchlike, only about 10% of the donations actually go to the recipient - in one case, only 2%! The overwhelming bulk of it is divided between the activists behind the campaign, including journalists, broadcasters and procurers of rabbinic support. (Thank goodness there are newspapers and magazines that do proper investigative journalism - something that does not exist in the frum world.)

Of course, everyone would agree that this is scandalous. This is why organizations such as the Vaad HaRabbonim promote their charity by claiming that 100% of the proceeds go to the poor, with gifts such as magic challah knives having been separately donated. (Of course this is somewhat disingenuous, since doubtless the person who spent a fortune on magic challah knives would have given this money to the charity's general funds had there been no need for magic challah knives.) 

But the problem here is that giving all the money to the poor is also very far from the ideal, and this is a harmful message to send. In part, this is because every successful charity needs funds for professional administration and fundraising. But it also relates to how modern society is different from traditional Jewish society.

For thousands of years, Jews followed the values expressed by the Torah and Chazal. Doing one's part for the nation was critical, and there was no way to get an exemption. Being self-supportive, and raising one's children to be self-supportive, was generally seen as the ideal. Living simply was praiseworthy, but living off charity was shameful. The concept of the food that a poor person receives being called nehama d'kisufa, "bread of shame," was so obvious that it became a metaphor for other things. And learning Torah was not seen as a valid reason to idealize or even justify such a way of life (though teaching Torah was, by most authorities, considered acceptable).

Nowadays, it's entirely different. The rise of the welfare state has made it possible for many people to live in a state whereby they are poor by modern standards but do not starve to death. The opposition in some circles to Zionism has created an isolationist mindset which causes some people to not care at all about the impact of growing poverty on the national economy. And the innovations of mystical-charedi theology have entirely negated Chazal's value system, leading hundreds of thousands to believe that if you are in kollel then living off charity is not only not something shameful, but actually a privilege to which they are entitled, and to which they should raise their children.

With such a situation, when you have funds to distribute to the poor, and you just hand out all the money to the sort of people described above, this only alleviates the problem of their poverty in the very short-term. In the long run, it does not help at all, and may even make things worse. When these people are encouraged to believe that their lifestyle is both noble and manageable, they have little incentive to change anything for the next generation. And so in the next generation, the problem is many times bigger. If you're wealthy person supporting ten families in kollel, each of whom has four boys that they are raising towards a kollel lifestyle, are you so sure that your own children will have the desire and ability to support forty such families?

The Jerusalem Post, in a recent article relating to this topic, quoted Prof. Yuval Elbashan, who founded and directed the legal department of YEDID – The Association for Community Empowerment. In reference to charities that give hand-outs, he stated that “The aid of the charities is problematic because it is actually about giving paracetamol, something that reduces the distress a little but really does not treat the root of the problem."

As Rambam writes, the highest level of charity is to ensure that the person does not need to live off charity in the future. In previous times, that could generally be accomplished with monetary gifts or loans, since the recipient was motivated to try to get himself out of poverty. But today, when there is an entire society which presents the lack of self-sufficiency as an ideal, and most jobs require some sort of education or training, charity needs to be done smarter. Instead of just giving all the money to the poor, it is important to invest in professional assessments and training programs to enable the poor to become self-sufficient - and to spread a message that this is what poor people should themselves be aiming for. Supporting poor families to preserve their kollel lifestyle, or helping a young couple get married when the husband has no intention of working to support his wife, is not acceptable. Charity dollars need to be prioritized for helping either those who are unable to help their own situation or those who are trying to do so.

Many community charities promote themselves by talking about how many families they help - because this is what is effective in fundraising. But we should all be making it clear that this is not the sole or ideal metric by which a charity's value should be measured. What counts even more than how many families they help is what proportion of the families that they have helped in the past no longer need to be helped, because of the work that the charity has done.

That is the standard set by the community charity in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Lemaan Achai, whose motto is "Smart Chessed." It should serve a model for community charities everywhere.


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Monday, September 19, 2022

You Won't Believe what The Gedolim said about Tzedakah Organizations

Approaching Rosh HaShanah, we are all solicited by many organizations. Some are extremely worthy, others are less worthy. Some support those who are poor through no fault of their own, others support those who are poor because they are ideologically opposed to work. Some offer a feeling of satisfaction for having done a good deed, others manipulate people into giving with (false) promises of good things that will happen to those who donate.

But what about the actual finances of an organization? How is one to know which organizations are using their monies ethically?

I was dumbfounded to read an email solicitation from the Vaad HaRabbanim of Lakewood/ Bnei Brak, with endorsements from Rav Gershon Edelstein and numerous other top names in the charedi Litvish and Chassidishe world, which bore the following title:

"Gedolim Say This Is One Of The Only Tzedaka Organizations You Can Trust"

Now, I have no idea if the rabbanim who lent their signatures really said that which is attributed to them. But the mere fact that a major organization would make a declaration in the name of the Gedolim that most tzedakah organizations cannot be trusted is shocking. Are they just out to trash other organizations? Or is this really how things are in the world of charitable organizations with which they are familiar? 

Perhaps it is indeed how things are in their circles. As you may recall, I discovered last year that some money which was removed from my bank account by a charity without my consent apparently went towards helping Yanky Kanievsky buy his luxury home. Ironically, this sort of thing happens precisely because these charities use the names of Gedolim to solicit funds.

Reading through the names of the Gedolim who allegedly made this claim and endorse this appeal, I was surprised to see the name of Rav Chaim Kanievsky's son, Rav Yitzchak Shaul Kanievsky. This is the same person who was taken to Beis Din by his own brothers for manipulating their father into secretly signing over his entire estate, worth many millions of dollars, to him alone. This is a person who is called upon to attest to the integrity of the Vaad HaRabbanim? And let's not forget that his brothers confirmed (as is obvious) that Gedolim's endorsements don't actually count for anything!

The endorsement also claims that because all donations go fully and directly to the needy, this is the best form of tzedakah. But the experts in charity that I know strongly dispute that assertion. Overhead is not wasted money - not only do you need good (i.e. paid) people to raise money effectively, but you also need to use donations effectively. You don't help people leave poverty by just giving them money. You need to assess their situation (my wife used to work as a social worker in that capacity), figure out why they are poor, and give them the tools to be able to get themselves out of that situation. Assuming, that is, that you believe that poverty is not a preferred way of life.

Meanwhile, the Vaad HaRabbanim also declares that "all those who generously donate $520 towards this campaign will receive a pure silver Challah knife just in time for Rosh Hashona, a well-known segulah for parnossah for the upcoming year, with the Bracha of Maran Harav Chaim Kanievsky ztz”l engraved upon it– A physical symbol of the timeless agreement between you and the late Gadol Hador z’’l." Now, without getting into the argument of whether a silver segulah knife really does have an effect on parnasah, I would like to point out that I don't believe that the people working at Vaad HaRabbanim themselves really think that it does - because you can bet your bottom dollar that they are giving poor people food and/or money, not silver segulah knives! So since they themselves don't believe that silver segulah knives have any meaningful effect, why are they using them to manipulate people into giving them money? Of course, I have no doubt that it's a highly effective fundraising tool, but I personally dislike supporting fundraising that reinforces superstition.

I prefer to donate to my local charity of Lemaan Achai. Primarily, this is because it is a charity that actually works to get people out of poverty, rather than perpetuating the exponentially-growing problem of charedi poverty by giving handouts. But in addition, I trust it, because it doesn't manipulate people with false or superstitious shtick, and it's professionally operated and overseen by people that I know personally. You can donate online at

(Alternately/ in addition, if you'd like to support the Biblical Museum of Natural History, which inspires and educates tens of thousands of people annually about Torah and nature, you can do so at

Tizku lemitzvot!


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Friday, September 16, 2022

Can You Remain Silent About Spiritual Cancer?

Beit Shemesh was on fire yesterdary. In all meanings of the term.

There's a lot of people in this wonderful city who love running - men, women, secular, charedi, dati-leumi. The city organizes an annual race/ marathon which many people join. But some charedi women felt uncomfortable running in such a mixed event, and so, after consulting their rabbonim, they asked the city to make a separate, women-only event. Mayor Aliza Bloch and Deputy Mayor Rena Hollander (pictured here) were glad to comply, and so a religious women-only race was arranged to take place today, on a remote road with no adjoining houses that would be closed to traffic.

Although this was an event requested by charedi women to accommodate their sensitivities, the zealots of the city responded angrily. A pashkevil (flyer) was circulated, condemning the event as pritzus and offensive to charedim. And Rav Elimelech Kornfeld, rabbi of a large Anglo-charedi community (the Gra shul) here in Ramat Beit Shemesh, sent out the following email to the Ramat Beit Shemesh email list:

"Dear friends,

"We have made Israel our home, because we are proud of our Jewish values. Many of us have given up a lot of what we had in Chutz Laaretz so that we can live in an environment that is conducive to these values.

"While the above is vivid and true, we are still faced with numerous spiritual "made in Israel" challenges. Some of them are more blatant, others are subtle. Subtle issues are actually the ones we need to be more aware of their danger. They have a tendency to sneak without notice, plant their hidden roots and then develop from a small malignant cell, into a significant, life-threatening growth.

"Sometimes, allowing a "small" decline in the level of the majestic and refined manner of conduct in terms of the values of modesty and privacy of our women may seem to be minor, but this is truly comparable to the "subtle" changes of the founders of the Reform movement 200 years ago. If it wouldn't be for great people like the Vilna Gaon and the Noda B'yehuda, who recognized the dangerous nature of these changes there would be little left of our glorified Yiddishkeit.

"To this end, we cannot remain silent when our city "boasts" a public women's merutz (marathon) that is aimed also for religious women. Unfortunately, this kind of event is not fitting for our women of valor, running openly in public is in sharp contrast to standards of proper conduct of a royal Bas Yisroel.

"While it is certainly important to take care of one's physical needs, to make a public exposition of it is completely inappropriate. We are just a few days away from Rosh Hashana and are all looking forward to a new year that is full of Hashem's great Chesed Vrachamim. May our Chizzuk in our appreciation of our status as Hashem's beloved nation, bring us a year of good health, bracha and nachas from all our children.


"Elimelech Kornfeld and Rabbanai Hakehillos RBS"

Now, I'm also against running marathons, though only for myself. Are women's marathons immodest? Some furiously dismiss this view as being objectively ridiculous. But in my view, they are mistaken. There is no such thing as an objective definition of modesty. Everything is culturally conditioned. Just look at how standards of modesty in the non-Jewish world have changed over the last century! And in the Jewish world, it's no different. There are communities in which wearing a sheitel is considered modest, and there are communities where wearing a sheitel is considered immodest. We have no right to claim that our own standards of modesty are any more correct than anyone else's.

I would also say, contrary to the opinion expressed by many, that Rav Kornfeld is perfectly entitled - even obligated - to tell the women of his community what he expects them to do. They have accepted him as a particular type of rabbinic leader, and this is part of the package. This is no different from the opinion that he publicly expressed a few years ago, that people are not free to choose who to vote for, but must instead vote for whoever "Daas Torah" tells them to vote for. If you accept him as your authority, then this is what you have to do. (And if this sounds odd, wait until you hear his views about how voting must be done even though it doesn't inherently have any effect whatsoever).

But all this cuts both ways.

It's rather odd to make blanket statements about such things being immodest when there are plenty of religious and even charedi rabbonim who are perfectly fine with it. 

Furthermore, to describe the women's race with the metaphor of a "cancerous growth" goes beyond rhetorical flourish to being deeply offensive. 

And to say that it is "truly comparable" to the start of Reform is absurd.

In addition, while writing a letter to one's own community is one thing, the phraseology of this letter was making a statement both to and about the community at large - and the shul sent it to the general Ramat Beit Shemesh email list.

But perhaps the most bothersome part of Rav Kornfeld's letter is his statement about how he "cannot remain silent" in the face of such an event.

There are a number of things that Rav Kornfeld has been unable to be silent about, aside from women running. He signed a public letter against Mishpacha magazine being distributed. He opposed restaurants having seating areas. He fought against an attempt to have a charedi political party that would represent charedim who work.

But do you know what he has been able to be silent about? Religious extremism.

As is well known, Beit Shemesh has long been a focal points of religious extremism that has reached actual physical violence. Now, Rav Kornfeld himself is against such things (I have known him and his family for many years). and none of the Anglos in his community would ever be involved in it. However, he has never spoken out against it. Community activists who tried to get him to sign condemnations against religious violence have never been successful. Why is it that Rav Kornfeld is only unable to keep silent about the city not being as charedi as he would like, but he is able to keep silent about violence?

Meanwhile, religious zealots tried to sabotage the women's race. They scattered thousands of marbles on the road, to create a safety hazard. They shone laser pointers in the eyes of runners. They set fire to nearby fields.

Now, the zealots who did this are not followers of Rav Kornfeld, and nor would they care what he has to say. But, as I wrote in a post titled "Denying Extremism, Dismissing Hooliganism," there is a continuous spectrum ranging from rhetoric to verbal abuse to actual physical violence. Furthermore, while the people at each level do not agree with the level of hostility coming from people to their right, there is near-constant refusal to condemn it. And when people who are horrified by the violence nonetheless produce inflamed rhetoric about those who deviate from their religious ideals, this creates an atmosphere that allows the violence and contributes to it.

I wonder if Rav Kornfeld will be able to remain silent in the face of such zealous violence - a slippery slope which, unlike women running, actually historically led to the destruction of Jerusalem. Or is violence, unlike women running, not a cancerous growth?

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Thursday, September 15, 2022

The Art of the Ark

I'm pleased to announce a special event to benefit the Biblical Museum of Natural History:

Over the past year, it's been amazing to amass an extraordinary collection of model Noah's Arks from around the world, and I can't wait to share it!


An exclusive exhibit preview and dessert reception at the Biblical Museum of Natural History 

Tuesday evening (Isru Chag), October 18, 2022

7:30 Reception 

8:00 Gallery Talk 

8:45 Open Museum and Animal Encounters 

Contribution: $180 (Complimentary for 2022 Patrons) 

For details and reservations, see

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Bibi Destroys Charedi Accomplishment

It's frustrating beyond words.

While in New York they are making a fuss about chassidim not getting a general education, here in Israel it's infinitely worse. At least in New York, the chassidim only harm themselves (with indirect harm to the wider Jewish community as a result of the inevitable backlash to exposés of fraud). But in Israel, where the charedim are fully a third of first-graders and increasing, the lack of secular education doesn't just cause a disastrous cycle of poverty in charedi communities - it's a threat to the entire country. Jonathan Rosenblum, in his all-time most important column in Mishpacha, pointed out that both the IDF and the national economy requires a high proportion of the population to have professional careers. Unless there is some sort of fundamental change in charedi society, the country is doomed.

Such changes are incredibly difficult to make happen. Some people like to say that "change happens from within," but that sort of change, while it is happening, is taking place far too slowly to stop the impending national disaster. If one charedi kid in each family enrolls in some sort of education or training program, that still leaves five who don't.

But the Bennett-Lapid government, among other extraordinary accomplishments, managed to make a significant change. The Belz chassidic network of schools agreed, for the first time, to incorporate the core curriculum, in exchange for additional funding. The significance of this cannot be adequately stressed. It was a sea change in chareid society and a harbinger of hope for both reducing charedi poverty and for saving the country.

Nevertheless, the Lithuanian charedi community firmly opposed it. (It's interesting that whereas in the US it's the chassidim rather than the Litvaks who are more closed to secular education, here in Israel it's the opposite.) Consequently, the political union of Agudas Yisrael (the Chassidim) with Degel HaTorah (the Litvaks) was going to break apart. And there was a chance that one of those parties would fail to cross the electoral threshold in the forthcoming elections.

Enter Bibi. He loves having the charedi parties in his coalition, since they will do whatever he wants as long as throws money at them to subsidize their economically non-viable communities, just as they did with the Gaza withdrawal. Bibi was very worried about the prospect of a charedi party not crossing the electoral threshold. So, in order to avoid them splitting up, he offered that all charedi schools will receive full funding even if they don't teach any secular studies. Which means, of course, that there will no longer be any incentive for Belz to make their curricular change.

It's appalling. There was finally a path out of poverty for the charedim and for Israel, and Bibi went and ruined it out of his lust for power. After having received this offer, the charedim will never join any coalition unless they are given this same offer.

Bibi has accomplished many great things for the State of Israel. But this may prove to be his most devastating act of damage.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Chassidic Chickens Come Home To Roost

It's finally happened. 

For decades, the Chassidic community in the New York area has avoided teaching its children secular studies, or even the English language. Moreover, they've managed to secure a vast amount of public funding for this, through a combination of political power and cunning finagling. Along the way, countless young chassidim have been doomed to poverty, with many of them bitterly disillusioned by the chassidic lifestyle and some of them leaving it with a well-earned grudge.

The inevitable has now happened. The New York Times has published a seminal report on the situation, bitingly titled "In Hasidic Enclaves, Failing Private Schools Flush with Public Money." They even published it in Yiddish translation!

Now, in the past I've had harsh words for the New York Times, with its grossly incompetent and false articles about Israel. But this article is meticulously researched. The journalists reviewed thousands of pages of public records, translated dozens of Yiddish documents, and interviewed more than 275 people, including current and former students, teachers, administrators and regulators. (Many of the school principals from whom they sought comment refused to be interviewed, and the Times went to the extent of sending them a pre-publication preview of the article, to get their response.)

Furthermore, anyone who is familiar with the chassidic community, either in New York or England or Israel, knows that it's all true.

Unfortunately, it feeds into the worst antisemitic stereotypes. From time immemorial, the antisemitic caricature of the Jew has been as a cunning thief. But who should be blamed for the antisemitism that could result as a result of this stereotype being reinforced?

I was disappointed to see some non-Chassidic rabbis and public figures castigate the New York Times for this. It is the job of the Times to report such things. We should not be blaming the non-Jewish media for exposing Jewish dirty laundry, whether it be sex abuse that isn't being dealt with or inadequate education and misappropriation of public funds. The ones responsible are the Chassidic community, who not only acted wrongly and irresponsibly, but also foolishly in expecting to get away with it forever. The backlash that this could cause against the entire Jewish community was entirely predictable and is their fault. 

But it's not only the Chassidim that are to blame. It's also the rest of the Jewish community, who turned a blind eye to this, or who in some cases, defended the chassidic approach. If we don't take care of our own problems, then we have no right to be angry when other people address them in ways that we don't like.

Hopefully the New York Times article will do what Jewish leaders never even tried to do - force a vital change. This is what just happened in Israel, when as a result of pressure from a non-charedi government, Belz chassidim finally agreed to incorporate basic secular studies into their schools in exchange for funding. 

We can fix problems ourselves, or we can have others fix them for us. It's our choice.

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Thursday, September 8, 2022

If Zionism Never Existed

Many Jews are anti-Zionist (extreme left-wingers, Satmar) or non-Zionist (most charedim). Those who object to Zionism on religious grounds can certainly point to many early Zionists who were anti-religious and who saw nationalism as replacing Judaism. They also claim that there are innate religious problems with creating a state. But would they prefer that Zionism had never arisen?

Let's imagine what the world would be like without Zionism. There would be no State of Israel, but what would be in its place? Some people seem to think that it would have been a region of the British Empire, like Stamford Hill. But the age of the British Empire is long over, and they would have pulled out by now even without Zionists pushing them out. Israel would be the State of Palestine, home to a few million Arabs along with a few hundred thousand Jews at most (since there would have been none of the mass immigrations).

What would life be like in the State of Palestine for these Jews? It wouldn't be like living in Brooklyn or Stamford Hill, where there is a generous welfare state and protection of rights (though note that patience is starting to run out in these countries for exponentially growing communities that live off welfare as an ideology and refuse to provide secular education). It would be like living in other authoritarian Middle Eastern Arab countries, which isn't so great, especially for Jews. There would be terrible poverty and occasional persecution. And forget about generous government grants and permissions for developing shuls, yeshivos, and holy sites.

The State of Israel has worked out very, very well for religious Jews. And, of course, were it to chas v'shalom disappear now as part of a war (or "peace deal") with the Arabs, the consequences would be absolutely catastrophic. Charedim might not have been happy with how it came into existence, but they certainly now should be appreciating its existence and understanding the necessity of enabling it to thrive. (And I do think that many of them would agree to this, at least in theory.)

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Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Guns, Girls and Gemaras

Earlier this year, I was shopping at one of the heimishe Shabbos food stores in Ramat Beit Shemesh and loaded up my cart with a mountain of jars of variously flavored herrings. The cashier, a young charedi Israeli man, surveyed the stack, and perceptively said "Mazel tov! What's the occasion? New baby?"

"Siyum masechta (completion of a tractate of Gemara)" I replied.

"Mazeltov! Kol hakavod to you," he responded.

"No, not me," I clarified. "My daughter."

His eyes bugged. To his credit, he managed to recover his composure. "Um... um... very nice!" he stammered.

Feeling a little mischievous, I decided to share some further information.

"Yes, it's wonderful" I said. "And soon she's joining the army."

The poor guy.

It was a lot for him to wrap his head around. And I could sympathize. Certainly if you would have told me, back when I held my firstborn baby, that nineteen years later she would be learning Gemara and joining the IDF, I would have been shocked and horrified. And even today, while I am immensely proud of my daughter, her chosen path is still jarring for me (and is not that of the high school to which we sent her).

In the past few years I've learned a lot about what it means to raise teenagers in socio-religious circles very different from that in which I was raised. One thing that I've learned is that my wife and I have very little say in the matter. Some of our children in particular are extremely strong- and independent-minded (I have no idea where they got that from). And I'm in a discussion group with both religious and formerly-religious people, and one thing that the latter group all say is that parents and teachers who tried to force them into a mold did not help at all.

But it's not just about biting my tongue. I've also learned that there are worthy paths in life which are quite different from the limited options of which I was previously aware. 

The high school that our daughter attended encourages the girls to follow their schooling with a year in sherut leumi, national service. Our daughter, who has been co-founding and running amazing chessed and social programs for several years already, decided that she wanted to push herself to do something more. When she told us that she was thinking of enlisting in the IDF, I told my wife that we should not try to dissuade her, because (A) she obviously wasn't going to actually follow through with it, and (B) arguing with her would just make her even more determined to go. 

But then she decided to attend the Lod branch of Ohr Torah Stone/ Midreshet Lindenbaum, a post-high school seminary which also includes a sort of hesder-type program for girls to enlist in the IDF. After their Torah studies and spiritual strengthening in the midrasha, the girls in this program join the army. This is done as part of a cooperative effort between the midrasha and the IDF, in which the IDF respects their needs and they continue to have shiurim and Shabbatonim with the midrasha teachers. As she progressed through the past year, my daughter decided that she really did want to join the army, and she enlisted this week.

In shul this past Shabbat, I received an aliyah - ironically for the very Torah portion that speaks about the religious obligation to fight in wars and those who are exempt from it. The Gemara notes that such exemptions are only for optional wars; in the case of a milchemet mitzvah, even a bride goes to fight. The gabbai recited a misheberach for my daughter to be safe and successful in engaging our enemies. But the formulation of the misheberach was not really suitable. The armies and wars of today are not like those of Biblical times, when victory largely depended on the number of people physically fighting and everyone would be taking up arms. The 21st century army is a highly specialized organization in which most people are in technological, administrative or other non-fighting roles. Religious girls in the IDF are not generally going into combat; our daughter was in more danger spending the past year in the city of Lod! After a few weeks of (very) basic training, she will be serving in a teaching role.

Ten years ago it was almost unheard of for religious girls to enlist in the IDF. Nowadays it is becoming ever more common. My neighbor's daughter just completed her service and is spending Elul in midrasha to spiritually recharge before returning to the IDF to serve as an officer. This week, when we dropped off our daughter at the military base, there were dozens and dozens of religious girls there. The IDF very much wants them to join, since they are idealistic and superb assets, and so the army makes efforts to accommodate them religiously. My daughter told me that at Shacharit yesterday there were about eighty girls - who had to wake up an hour early to attend minyan after an exhausting day.

To be sure, there are numerous spiritual challenges, and the girls still need to exercise great strength and vigilance. It's still a risky path, which scares not only my wife and I, but also our daughter. Still, sending boys to combat is also risky, but our community does that too - not only out of a sense of national obligation, but also because there is simultaneously much for them to gain from it. 

I pray that Hashem watches over her, and helps her to help Am Yisrael. And I hope and trust that she will grow immensely from the experience.

מִי שֶׁבֵּרַךְ אֲבוֹתֵינוּ אַבְרָהָם יִצְחָק וְיַעֲקֹב, וְאִמּוֹתֵינוּ שָׂרָה רִבְקָה רָחֵל וְלֵאָה, הוּא יְבָרֵךְ, יִשְׁמֹר וְיִנְצֹר אֶת בִּתֵּנוּ הַיְּקָרָה בְּבוֹאָהּ לְהִתְגַּיֵּס לִצְבָא הַהֲגַנָּה לְיִשְׂרָאֵל וְלַעֲמֹד עַל מִשְׁמַר אַרְצֵנוּ.

מֶלֶךְ מַלְכֵי הַמְּלָכִים יַעֲמֹד לִימִינָהּ, יְחַזְּקֶהָ וִיאַמְּצֶהָ, וְיַצְלִיחַ אֶת דַרְכָּהּ בְּהִתְיַצְּבָהּ לְהָרִים אֶת תְּרוּמָתָהּ לְטוֹבַת הָעָם וְהָאָרֶץ, וְתִזְכֶּה לַעֲסֹק בַּעֲבוֹדַת קֹדֶשׁ הַמּוֹעִילָה לָרַבִּים.

הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא יְמַלֵּא אֶת מִשְׁאֲלוֹת לִבָּהּ לְטוֹבָה, וְיִשְׁלַח בְּרָכָה, רְוָחָה וְהַצְלָחָה בְּכָל מַעֲשֵׂה יָדֶיהָ.

אֲדוֹן הַשָּׁלוֹם יִפְרֹשׁ עָלֵינוּ וְעָלֶיהָ אֶת סֻכַּת שְׁלוֹמוֹ, וִישִׁיבֶהָ לְבֵיתָהּ בְּשָׁלוֹם וּבְשִֹמְחָה, עִם שְׁאָר חַיָּלֵי וְחַיָּלוֹת צְבָא הַהֲגַנָּה לְיִשְׂרָאֵל, בַּעֲבוּר שֶׁאָנוּ מִתְפַּלְּלִים עָלֶיהָ וַעֲלֵיהֶם, וְכֵן יְהִי רָצוֹן, וְנֹאמַר אָמֵן.


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Saturday, September 3, 2022

Who Is Responsible For Bloodshed?

About ten years ago, some people in Jerusalem believed that their children were being molested by a missionary pedophilia ring masterminded by an elderly woman who was running it out of secret dungeons in her basement. One man, along with some associates, broke into this woman's home and beat her up, breaking her bones, but did not find any dungeons. When he was caught by police, he declared that he had been acting under instructions from Rav Moshe Shapira, a brilliant mystical scholar much revered in Anglo-charedi circles. (Full disclosure: He was also one of the primary forces behind the ban on my books.)

Rav Shapiro put out a letter strongly condemning the man's actions and asserting that the woman was innocent of any wrongdoing. He also pronounced the declaration mentioned in today's Torah reading about the procedure of eglah arufah, the unsolved murder, in which the elders declare, "Our hands did not spill this blood." 

However, the man produced a secret video recording, since circulated by the news media. In this recording, Rav Moshe explicitly told him that the police will not stop this woman and that he should beat her up to the point of hospitalization or beyond. (The police subsequently arrested Rav Moshe for incitement to violence.)

Now, perhaps one can argue that if the woman was indeed masterminding a pedophilia ring that the police were not doing anything about, then vigilante action is indeed necessary (though personally I would think that one should exercise extreme humility and caution before drawing such conclusions). But whether or  not that is the case, one thing is clear: Rav Moshe really did encourage the man to severely beat her, and thus whether the man's actions were right or wrong, Rav Moshe bore some responsibility for them. And to cite the verse of "Our hands did not spill this blood" was completely inverting the meaning of the eglah arufah procedure. 

The mitzvah of eglah arufah is difficult to fully understand, and the commentaries give a variety of explanations. However, whatever the precise significance of the ritual and the meaning of the proclamation, it's clear that it's fundamentally about taking responsibility, not absolving oneself of it. When there is a murder, every attempt must be made to find the killer. If this fails, one doesn't simply throw up one's hands and move on - an entire procedure of atonement is required. As Rashi explains, the leaders are required to attest even that they didn't even cause people to be so hungry that they are driven to murder others for sustenance. Now, being responsible for poverty is hardly the same as being responsible for murder, and yet the Torah still considers them to be related. Rambam says that the leaders must likewise attest that they have taken sufficient measures to ensure public safety. We see how much the Torah demands responsibility from leaders.

I was reminded of all this over Shabbos, not just because of the parashah, but also because of a drasha I heard from our community rav. He pointed to this message of eglah arufah in the context of bemoaning last week's news about the Meron Commission of Inquiry. 

After a year of interviews, the State Commission of Inquiry into the Meron tragedy sent warning letters to eighteen officials, including police chiefs, the minister of religious services at the time, and Bibi. The Commission noted that they are limiting their mandate to those who served in official roles at the time, even though there were many others without official roles who were involved in pressuring the officials to bypass normal safety protocols. 

It's important to understand that a tragedy of that magnitude could not have happened without a very large number of people being complicit. As someone who runs a public institution, I am all too familiar with how many safety codes and regulations one has to painstakingly fulfill in order to receive a license to operate. And that's for a relatively small institution with a capacity of several hundred people - once you're talking about events with tens of thousands of people, the dangers are exponentially greater and the safety requirements vastly more serious. Meron could not have bypassed all those codes for years, especially after several reports from the State Comptroller's office warning of the dangers of the site, without numerous people "greasing the wheels." 

So, there were numerous important people, leaders and safety officials and influencers, who were together responsible for the loss of 45 lives, the worst civil disaster in the history of the country. And how many of them have stepped up to take partial responsibility? Not a single one.

To that disgrace, one can add that the underlying cause for enabling such a dangerous event to take place -  charedi separatism and disregard for civil law and the laws of science - is likewise not something for which any charedi leaders are admitting any error.

If a communal atonement by leaders is required for a single murder which cannot be solved and which is not actually their responsibility in any way, imagine what kind of atonement is required for the loss of 45 lives in which the cause of death is obvious and lies with the leaders themselves.

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Wednesday, August 31, 2022

The Kanievskys Blow the Whistle on Daas Torah

My, this is interesting.

Rav Chaim Kanievsky ztz"l was proclaimed for many years to be the authoritative voice of Daas Torah. Countless people would stream to him for advice, on matters of tremendous significance. All the charedi press enthusiastically supported this, and it was unthinkable for anyone to publicly oppose him. For example, during the Covid pandemic, the US edition of Yated Ne'eman reported as follows:
In Praise of Rav Chaim
Opening summer zman for Yerushalayim's Mir yeshiva via conference call, Rav Eliezer Yehuda Finkel spoke to thousands of talmidim about Rav Chaim Kanievsky's greatness and his inimitable guidance of the Torah world during the current crisis.
"Boruch Hashem, the hashgocha has left us nevi'ei emes including the great luminary, the wonder of the generation, the master of the entire Talmud who would be a member of the Sanhedrin if it existed, the prince of Torah whose words are all divrei kabbolah and who has no knowledge of external affairs," he said. "All his words emanate from ruach Hashem and the Torah within him is divrei Elokim chaim vekayomim la'ad."

But on several occasions over the past decade, I argued that this "Daas Torah" was a sham. Rav Chaim was a sheltered and very elderly man, with his mind clearly in cognitive decline, and was being manipulated by his family for power and money.

I was far from the only one to argue this. And when an Israeli satirical TV show produced a skit to this effect, showing him to be in cognitive decline and manipulated by his grandson, there was a furious reaction from the charedi world.

Well, lo and behold, this has now been acknowledged by none other than some of Rav Kanievsky's own children.

One aspect of Rav Chaim's genuine greatness was the simplicity of his lifestyle. However, after his passing, his meager possessions were worth a fortune. A wealthy collector offered his son Rav Yitzchak Shaul (Shuki), who lived in Rav Chaim's home and handled his affairs along with his own son Yanky, seven million dollars for Rav Chaim's handwritten notes on the Talmud Yerushalmi. 

Rav Shuki's two brothers, Rav Avraham Yeshaya Kanievsky and Rav Shlomo Kanievsky, only discovered this after negotiations were underway. Naturally, they were expecting to evenly divide the estate (the five daughters were not expecting anything). But to their surprise and dismay, Rav Shuki revealed a secret handwritten letter from Rav Chaim declaring that Shuki should be his sole heir!

The brothers turned to Beis Din. They argued to the Beis Din that when Rav Chaim wrote this letter - all the way back in 2013 - he was already in cognitive decline and was manipulated by R. Shuki into writing it!

This was indeed a very reasonable claim. First of all, it is extraordinarily unreasonable to propose that he didn't want to divide his estate evenly. Second, he clearly was in cognitive decline and being manipulated - and the sons were in a prime position to be aware of that! 

But R. Shuki and his family countered this claim. They put forward the following argument: How can you say that he was manipulated into making decisions, when he had the role of giving guidance to the entire generation? This argument may not have been logically sound, but it was strategically brilliant. The other sons had always been quite happy to play along with the idea that Rav Chaim was Daas Torah - how could they only now claim that it was a sham?

Nevertheless, the Dayanim and Rabbanim of Bnei Brak forced R. Shuki to divide the estate. It's not entirely clear if this was done as a formal verdict that the letter was invalid. The reported claim was that they insisted this to be done "to avoid a Chillul Hashem," though it's not specified exactly what that chillul Hashem would have been. It hardly seems to avoid chillul Hashem to have a handwritten letter from Rav Chaim that is being overruled.

To my mind, the greatest chillul Hashem already took place, over many years. And there is all the devastation to all those who were given faulty direction in various matters by someone who was unqualified to give it. As I've said on several occasions, the blame and responsibility for this farce is not only with Rav Chaim's family, but with every public figure, rabbi and magazine that endorsed the idea of Rav Chaim being a voice of Daas Torah for people's life decisions. No doubt they all prefer that the truth of what happened with his sons does not receive publicity.

Monday, August 29, 2022

Funny, Not Funny, And Funny

1. You're never too old to learn something new. And when it comes to relationships, it's always valuable to learn new lessons about communication. I've been married for over twenty years and I'm still learning important new lessons about how better communication can enhance a marriage. For example, the other day I learned that when you put giant millipedes in a cookie box, it's a good idea to make sure that your spouse knows that you have done that.

2. The New York Times printed an appalling antisemitic article by a Jew who is adored by the haters of Israel, the idiotic Peter Beinart, who is perhaps best known for his advocating the dismantling of the State of Israel and his blithe disregard for the catastrophic loss of life that would ensue. Now, Beinart is writing about how Jewish organizations are threatening freedom worldwide out of a desire to promote "Jewish supremacy." The usual Jewish enemies of the Jewish People have, of course, enthusiastically welcomed Beinart's latest article. An important response to Beinart was published by Prof. Jarrod Tanney. Here is another excellent comment posted by Michael Leon on Facebook:

I would submit that if you can’t see the problem with writing in the New York Times that American Jewish organizations are a “threat to freedom” in the context of accusing them of articulating a philosophy of “Jewish supremacy,” (again, imagine this language being directed at any other minority group in American society) then, respectfully, I think you’ve really lost your way and you’re letting your personal political resentments get in the way of your better judgment. 

People can disagree about Israel, about the work of American Jewish organizations, and about politics. There has to be some line drawn in the language we use to describe one another, and the language directed at the constituent organizations of minority groups. To call American Jewish organizations a “threat to freedom” is just a bridge too far and should cause some self-reflection, and same self-reflection many of you would quickly call on others to exercise. It is not justifiable to hurl these kinds of accusations against American Jews over Israel unless you believe that Jews bear collective responsibility for one another. 

As far as whether Peter’s piece is antisemitic or not, I would direct people here to the JDA, which provides, in pertinent part: 

“It is ‘classic antisemitism’ to suggest that ‘Jews are linked to the forces of evil[.]” “Antisemitism can be . . . indirect . . . or coded.” 

“[G]rossing exaggerating [Israel]’s actual influence can be a coded way of racializing and stigmatizing Jews.” 

Examples related to Israel and Palestine that are on the face of it, antisemitic: “Assuming that non-Israeli Jews, simply because they are Jews, are necessarily more loyal to Israel than to their own countries.” 

To accuse American Jewish organizations of being a “threat to freedom,” and to accuse them of favoring “Jewish supremacy” in their fight against antisemitism, on the pages of the most widely read American newspaper in the world, offends each of these sections of the JDA, as does blaming American Jewish organizations and Israel itself for the failures of countries like Saudi Arabia to liberalize, an utterly twisted and sour view of the Abraham Accords.

3. Here's a funny but unfortunate result of the combination of teaching about the prohibition of tzaar baalei chaim, shorthand terminology, and automatic Google translations:


Thursday, August 25, 2022

Zionist Detachment From Reality

In the past, I've written extensively about how "pro-peace" people who want Israel to give the Palestinians a state in Judea and Samaria are in denial of reality. A negotiated peace settlement will never happen, because the Palestinian leadership is just not interested in it. A unilateral withdrawal will just result in another failed terror-state that will attack Israel, and against which Israel will face international condemnation when it defends itself. And peace between the populations will never happen, since the Palestinians are collectively in denial of the Jewish historical attachment to the land and thus simply see us as European colonialists who stole their land, while some Jews believe that no Palestinians have a right to live here unless they swear allegiance to Israel.

But much of the right-wing Zionist camp is also in denial of reality.

An article in the Jerusalem Post relates that maps of Israel were created for schools by the Tel-Aviv Municipality which include a dotted line showing the distinction between Gaza, Judea and Samaria and Israel proper. But the Education Ministry, along with the Council of Settlements and religious Zionist schools, strongly opposed them. "Students from the schools in Efrat will visit Tel Aviv during the coming school year, even though the mayor of Tel Aviv doesn't like us that much, it turns out, or sees us as not legitimate residents of Israel," said council head Oded Ravivi.

What a bizarre and disturbing detachment from reality. The dotted line simply serves to teach the political and legal reality. Judea and Samaria are certainly part of Eretz Yisrael. And in many ways they are de facto part of the State of Israel. But they are not legally part of the State of Israel. That's just a plain fact. 

And it's not just a fact according to the UN or a similarly Judeopathic body; it's according to every government of Israel that has ever existed, including all the right-wing ones. Unlike the Golan, which was annexed by Israel, Judea and Samaria were never annexed. Doing so would result in the serious problem of not giving its Palestinian inhabitants the same legal rights as every other citizen of Israel.

In fact, it's precisely the fact that these areas are not legally part of the State of Israel that the Likud, Smotrich and the charedi parties took advantage of to blackmail the present government into collapsing. They threatened not to renew the temporary legislation that extends Israeli law to Israelis living in those areas. And Bibi certainly has no plans to annex Judea and Samaria.

I saw a number of people complaining about this map and pointing out that Palestinians frequently put out maps declaring all Israel to be Palestine. I much confess that I do not understand this argument. Even though the Palestinians are dishonest, surely we should avoid doing the same? Otherwise, how can we possibly claim to have the high ground in saying that they are dishonest in their claims?

The situation with Judea and Samaria is a mess. It's currently a problem without a solution. We can't just give it to the Palestinians, because that would result in catastrophe. But on the other hand, we haven't said that it's fully and permanently ours - and nor can we do so, because that would also result in catastrophe. In the absence of a better alternative, we are simply managing the current situation as best we can until a solution miraculously appears or somehow develops. (It's not unthinkable for such a messy situation to exist - there are all kinds of territorial disputes, military occupations and stateless nations around the world.)

But it doesn't help for either side to be in denial of reality.

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Who is Safeguarding Traditional Judaism?

I'll admit that it's partly my own fault. I wrote a post about the halachic license for my daughter to sing, and then I followed it with a post about the problem of not changing with the times. It was only to be expected that some people would assume that I was saying that an ancient tradition against women singing should be overturned in order to change with the times. Which in turn led some people to claim that I was rejecting Orthodox Judaism and even becoming a kofer. As one person said, the Gedolim were right to warn about me!

(Incidentally, I always find it funny when people make that claim. First of all, they are ignoring the role that the ban on my books had on my development - Rav Chaim Shmulevitz writes that Amalek only became who he was because he was rejected. Second, if I've only now become a kofer, then it means that the Gedolim were completely wrong in saying that what I wrote back then was kefirah!)

Anyway, I do need to make some clarifications. So here goes.

First of all, as I wrote explicitly, I am not comfortable with my daughter singing. I merely pointed out that there is sufficient halachic basis for stating that there is no prohibition of a woman singing. 

Second, as I thought I made clear (but apparently did not), this is not argued to be an innovative overturning of tradition as a concession to the times. Rather, the argument that Rav Lichtenstein and others make is that it is something that was never originally forbidden. The Gemara did not address singing, but rather speaking (in inappropriate situations). The primary Rishonim likewise did not make a rule about singing. It was only with the Acharonim that this rule developed. And even then there were Acharonim who were willing to maintain the approach of the Rishonim. 

In general, my approach to halacha is very conservative (with a small "c"), much more so than many Poskim. (And probably this is precisely because I'm very aware of the scale of the dangers involved, as well as the fact that I am very British and thus very traditional.) As made clear in my book Sacred Monsters, I strongly endorse the approach of Rav Herzog and others that halachos based on mistaken science are not to be changed. And I don't wear techeles, even though I am convinced that the chilazon is the Murex trunculus. As we see from the Gemara about the oven of Achnai, stability in Judaism is even more important than objective truth, and such stability requires loyalty to tradition.

It's ironic that my charedi critics were accusing me of wanting to forsake tradition. What I've been arguing for in endless posts is to preserve ancient tradition against charedi innovations. 

I've said it before and I'll say it again. In charedi society, "tradition" means what is done today. But for the rest of us, tradition means the traditions of Torah and Jews over millennia.

Torah tradition was to acknowledge that Chazal were not omniscient about scientific matters. Torah tradition was that the more a rabbi knows about the world, the more qualified he is to give guidance, not the reverse. Torah tradition was that a man should work for a living. Torah tradition was that a man has an obligation to raise his children with the ability to be economically self-sufficient. Torah tradition was that when you have a country, you need to rise to the occasion and develop it and protect it. And so on, and so on.

Torah tradition was also that when there are changing circumstances and new challenges, Judaism rises to the occasion. Now, in the modern world, this is a very dangerous thing. It certainly can and has been abused, leading to people abandoning halachic observance. And we must be extremely wary of exercising this power, which can have all kinds of unforeseen consequences. But, at the same time, we must recognize that saying that "we don't have the power to make any changes - even undoing the changes made a generation ago" is a very problematic position which likewise goes against tradition. 

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Monday, August 22, 2022

The Times, They Are A-Changin'

While Judaism has been around for thousands of years, it has changed in various ways over history. Concepts and beliefs changed. Certain things that were permitted became forbidden, certain things that were forbidden became permitted. Sometimes the changes happened gradually and organically. On other occasions, they were created consciously, within a decision-making framework such as that of Eis la'asos l'Hashem, as per the needs of the changing times.

In the comments to the previous post, someone expressed an idea that is commonly heard: Only the great figures of antiquity such as Chazal had the more to enact change in accordance with the changing circumstances of history. We do not have such power.

The problem with this is as follows. The world doesn't stop changing just because we don't have Chazal. It keeps on changing, in ever more radical ways. If you posit that we can no longer make the kind of adjustments that Chazal could and would have done, then what you are saying is that Torah and Judaism are crippled and incapable of meeting the requirements of living in the modern world. 

Sometimes this approach of helplessness is put forward not just vis-a-vis the Sages of antiquity but even regarding those of the previous generation. After the destruction of European Jewry, leaders such as the Chazon Ish and Rav Aharon Kotler enacted a revolutionary approach of pushing people to stay in long-term Torah study, to make up for all that was lost. Nowadays, we have more than made up for it, with more people learning Torah than any time before in history. And thus some approached the Torah leaders of our generation and suggested that it was time to revoke the temporary change. In at least one case, the response was that "we don't have the power to do so."

I can understand the fear that people have of enacting change, especially in light of the freedoms of the modern world and the way in which some movements went too far in changing Judaism. But by refusing to make any changes, they are not only making a break from tradition; they are saying that Judaism cannot rise to the challenges of the era.

That's a pretty terrible and devastating thing to say.

Monday, August 15, 2022

Can My Daughter Sing?

My eldest daughter is a very talented singer (which she certainly didn't get from me). When she asked me recently if there is any halachic room for her to sing in front of men, I regretfully but confidently replied in the negative. I had never really studied the topic, since it never been of relevance or interest to me, but I knew enough to know that kol b'isha ervah (the voice of a woman is nakedness) is an explicit Gemara that is undisputed. 

So she decided to look into it herself, with a tenacity that she might have gotten from me. When she came back and reported that there are rabbis who permit it under certain circumstances, I didn't believe her. And so I decided to look into it.

I. The Biblical Picture

While there are some famous accounts in Tanach of women singing, such as the songs of Miriam and of Devorah, it can be argued that those were only sung in the presence of other women. However, there are several references in Tanach to women singing in the presence of men:

"When the [troops] came home [and] David returned from killing the Philistine, the women of all the towns of Israel came out singing and dancing to greet King Saul with timbrels, shouting, and sistrums." (I Shmuel 18:6)

Kohelet, taken to be Shlomo HaMelech, says that he had female singers:

"I further amassed silver and gold and treasures of kings and provinces; and I got myself male and female singers, as well as the luxuries of commoners—coffers and coffers of them." (Kohelet 2:8)

And we also find the following account:

"Of the sons of the priests, the sons of Habaiah, the sons of Hakkoz, the sons of Barzillai ... they also had 200 male and female singers" (Ezra 2:61.65). 

Rashi and Metzudat David explain that these singers accompanied the people back from Bavel, to add celebration to the journey. 

Now, of course Biblical Judaism was very different from rabbinic Judaism, and we don't pasken from Tenach. Still, at the same time, we do try to harmonize halacha with Tanach. And all these verses show that it can't be unthinkable for men to listen to women sing. And, if we take a closer look at the sources in the Talmud and Rishonim, we will be able to actually understand these verses, rather than studiously avoid thinking about them, as people normally do.

II. The Talmudic Prohibition

The primary source regarding women singing is usually taken to be Berachot 24a. It begins with the following discussion:

"Rabbi Yitzḥak stated: An exposed handbreadth in a woman constitutes nakedness. Regarding which halakha was this said? If you say that it serves to prohibit looking at an exposed handbreadth, didn’t Rav Sheshet say ...Anyone who gazes (with impure intentions) upon a woman’s little finger is considered as if he gazed upon her genitals? Rather, it is referring even to his wife, while he is reciting the Shema." (Note - I do have a question on this Gemara: why didn't it just answer simply that whereas Rav Sheshet is referring to a case of looking with impure intentions, Rav Yitzchak is talking about seeing areas that are normally uncovered even without impure intentions? Why does it need to add that it is referring to reciting Shema and qualify that it is referring to his wife? I'd be grateful if anyone can suggest an answer to this.)

The Gemara then proceeds to list three further aspects of women that are rated as nakedness, but it does not clarify whether it is adding things to the category of Rav Sheshet (i.e. things that are generally prohibited) or the category of R. Yitzchak (i.e. things that are prohibited during Shema):

"Rav Chisda said: A woman’s leg is considered nakedness...

Shmuel said: A woman’s voice is considered nakedness, as it is stated: “Sweet is your voice and your countenance is alluring” (Song of Songs 2:14). 

Rav Sheshet said: A woman’s hair is considered nakedness... "

Rosh and others explain that these additions are referring to general prohibitions, while Raavya and Ritva explain that they are things that are prohibited during the recital of Shema. 

Whichever way one explains the Gemara, an important point to clarify is what is meant by a woman's "voice." I have seen various contemporary halachic works state that various authorities "clarify" that the Gemara is referring to a woman singing. However, these are not "clarifications" - they are interpretations. They are disputed by other, earlier authorities, who understand the Gemara as referring to a woman's speaking voice, and draw no distinction between speaking and singing. 

Furthermore, these authorities have far stronger grounds for their case. The reason is that Shmuel's statement that kol b'isha erva also appears in another Talmudic passage, where it is explicitly referring to speaking rather than singing:

"Later on, Rav Nachman suggested: Let the Master send greetings of peace to my wife Yalta. Rav Yehuda said to him: This is what Shmuel says: A woman’s voice is considered nakedness." (Kiddushin 70b)

It may sound surprising that a non-singing voice should be considered problematic, but we find the same sentiment elsewhere in the Gemara:

"Rachav aroused lust with her name, Yael with her voice" (Megillah 15a)

But can it really be that it is prohibited to listen to a woman talk? Rashba (Berachot 24a) explains that Shmuel is referring to speech which gives rise to feelings of intimacy, which is the context of the story with Rav Nachman and Rav Yehuda.

III. The Development of the Halacha

Rav Moshe Lichtenstein has a fascinating article in which he gives an unprejudiced analysis of the halachah. He notes that Rashba, as pointed out above, explains the Gemara in accordance with its straightforward meaning, in which there is no distinction between speaking and singing; the only relevant factor is the content and context. R. Lichtenstein adds that Rambam likewise only prohibits listening to a woman's voice in cases where it is done for lust. And the third of the major Rishonim to deal with the topic, Raaviah, also says that prohibition of listening to a woman's voice does not apply when one is accustomed to it.

The Shulchan Aruch mentions the prohibition regarding a woman's voice and does not distinguish between song and speech. It is with the commentaries on the Shulchan Aruch (Beit Shmuel and Magen Avraham) that we find a distinction being drawn between song and speech. As summarized by Sdei Chemed, most Acharonim follow in this path and place a blanket prohibition on listening to song; but Divrei Chefetz, following similar reasoning to Rashba, permits listening to song as long as it does not cause lust. Sdei Chemed says that one should follow the majority opinion, but notes that the opinion of Divrei Chefetz is cogent. This view is also cited in the famous ruling of R. Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg in Seridei Esh, about whom Rav Lichtenstein points out that he was particularly qualified to balance the requirements of halacha with the challenges and needs of the era.

Rav Lichtenstein summarizes the matter with a very important point about halachic methodology. He notes that when there is a halachic position which is the dominant view among the Rishonim, and still finds support among the Acharonim, and has been applied in the modern era by a prominent posek who is particularly attuned to the circumstances of the era, then it is a perfectly legitimate position to take. To this we can add that it is a view which is the most straightforward explanation of the Gemara, and also allows us to accept all the Scriptural verses about great men listening to women singing.

IV. Putting It Into Practice

Thus, there is a legitimate halachic view that a woman's voice is only forbidden when it causes lust. But this immediately raises a question: How can we decide when it is a case that causes lust? Rav David Bigman, Rosh Yeshivah of Maaleh Gilboa, has an article on this topic in which he presents five criteria via which to distinguish permissible from forbidden speech/song:

1. Context and atmosphere
2. The words being said
3. The musical style
4. Dress
5. Body language

Of course, even with these five criteria, the "devil is in the details" - there is still a lot of ambiguity and grey areas. But then, that is true of tzniyut in general. (Incidentally, Rav Bigman additionally argues that these five criteria should also apply to men singing for women!)

So, does all this mean that I am comfortable with my daughter singing in front of men?

Well, it's complicated. At the same time as being very proud of my daughter's talents, I must admit that it's a difficult adjustment for me. 

But if there's one thing that my daughter respects me for, it's my giving her honest answers. And I have to admit that she is correct - there is halachic legitimacy for it.


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Friday, August 12, 2022

One Hundred Thousand!

I have to say, I'm pretty darn proud of this accomplishment. The Biblical Museum of Natural History recently hosted its 100,000th visitor since its inception! (And this doesn't include all the thousands who toured via Zoom.) Thanks to everyone on my team and to all of our supporters for making this incredible accomplishment possible!

Monday, August 8, 2022

Fluffy Spirituality vs. Real Issues

There is disturbing news today from the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court. It's a perfect example of the crucial practical difference between (re)interpreting Tisha B'Av to be about fluffy inspiration regarding vague "connection with Hashem," versus actually listening to what the Nevi'im actually said about the Fall of Jerusalem.

As pointed out, when Yirmiyah and Yeshayah (and the authors of the Kinnos) bemoaned the Fall of Jerusalem, they spoke about the disgrace and death and persecution and exile. It wasn't the loss of a proper connection with Hashem - the prophets explicitly stated that that was already lost a long time ago. And when they spoke about the sins that brought this on, the major themes that constantly recur are corruption and not helping those who need help, even (and especially) among those that are revered as important and spiritual people:

"Alas, she has become a harlot, the faithful city that was filled with justice,
Where righteousness dwelt—but now murderers...

"Your rulers are rogues and cronies of thieves,
Every one avid for presents and greedy for gifts;
They do not judge the case of the orphan,
And the widow’s cause never reaches them." (Isaiah 1:21,23)

"They are all greedy for gain; priest and prophet alike, they all act falsely." (Jer. 8:10)

Well, public exhibit number one of these sins is MK Yaakov Litzman. When Malka Leifer was due to be extradited to Australia, to stand trial for seventy-four counts of sexual abuse of her students, Litzman took advantage of his power to pressure people in the Health Ministry to falsely declare Leifer unfit for extradition. Until he was eventually caught out, he was successful for years in committing this miscarriage of justice and causing tremendous pain to the victims. Inexplicably, instead of being punished for this terrible corruption, Litzman was given a plea deal by which he admitted guilt, paid a symbolic fine, resigned from the Knesset, and only received a suspended jail sentence. Naturally, he remains a respected figure in the charedi community and there is no condemnation or even acknowledgement of his actions.

If people want to really absorb the lessons of Tisha B'Av, then instead of running fluffy inspirational presentations, they should be rallying to protest actual travesties of justice such as this one. And what kind of lesson does it send about corruption, if all that actually happens as a result is that you have to resign from the Knesset?

Of course, people will just condemn me again as a "hater of God" for saying terrible things about the Torah world. Which is a pity, because as we just heard in the haftorah before Tisha B'Av, God Himself makes it clear that uprooting such evil is much more important to Him than knowledge of Torah:

"Thus said the LORD:
Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom;
Let not the strong man glory in his strength;
Let not the rich man glory in his riches. 

"But only in this should one glory:
In his earnest devotion to Me.
For I the LORD act with kindness,
Justice, and equity in the world;
For in these I delight
—declares the LORD."

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