Monday, January 31, 2022

Racist Anti-Racists

The Anti-Defamation League has existed for over a century. Its self-described noble mission is "to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all." Unfortunately, it recently seems to be betraying that very mission.

The ADL website provided the following definition of racism:


While one can quibble over nuances in this formulation, it's certainly generally correct and reasonable. But recently - I don't know exactly when - the ADL bizarrely decided that it was unsatisfactory. And so they changed it to read as follows:

This simply beggars belief. The ADL has adopted a definition of racism which is itself racist.

Of course, racism against blacks dwarfs racism against whites. But racism against whites most certainly does exist. Malcolm X was a racist against whites. So is Louis Farrakhan. And, most significantly, antisemitism is also a form of racism.  

The ADL's perversion of the meaning of racism is part and parcel of its alignment with Critical Race Theory and "progressive" approaches. In a related vein, it just hired Tema Smith as its new Director of Jewish Outreach and Partnerships. Tema Smith is an activist against injustice who sometimes seems confused about who exactly the victim is. When Ilhan Omar and British rapper Wiley were accused of antisemitism, Smith claimed that this was racism against them for being black. When Palestinians justified terrorist bombings of civilians and children in cafeterias, Smith argued that Jews have to be okay with it. When black people commit violent attacks against Jews, Smith believes that this means that the problem to be addressed is anti-black racism among Jews.

Now, some argue - and there may well be merit to their position - that this mindset is so taken for granted in many circles that it's important to have somebody who is part of those circles and nevertheless advocates for Jews and Israel. They might be right. But on the other hand, there comes a point where you are compromising values so much in order to reach certain people that you have to ask yourself if it's even worth it.


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Sunday, January 30, 2022

TikTok Hipokrisy

You've probably heard about Miriam Anzovin, a formerly Orthodox young woman posting Daf Yomi videos on TikTok. She does this in an irreverent style that includes obscene curse words. Rather unsurprisingly, this has led to criticism. Perhaps more surprisingly, this criticism has been met with some furious and very strange counter-criticism.

In some cases, those who criticized the obscenity-laced videos were told that they are misogynists who are only against Anzovin because she is female. No doubt there are indeed some people who are opposed to Anzovin for that reason, but aside from the fact that the particular people issuing the criticisms were most definitely not against women teaching Torah, this was just absurd. Like, people couldn't possibly be genuinely against using profanities in teaching Torah?!

Others argued that it is a free society and nobody has a right to shut anybody down. This was equally strange. Nobody was trying to "shut anyone down" -  how could that possibly even be done? But just as in a free society people are allowed to post videos with obscenities, so too others are free to protest it. The counter-critics are equally trying to "shut down" the critics!

Another counter-claim was that the Sages themselves sometimes cursed each other or used colorful language. This counter-claim was odd because it was said by people who themselves would most definitely not be okay with adopting all the social norms of Chazal's society. As everyone acknowledges, times change.

Still others, including at least one journalist, claimed that there is absolutely nothing profane in using irreverence, profanity, and sexual innuendo, because that is just the social norm. I found it remarkable that this journalist did not see the hypocrisy of making this claim in an article in which he quoted Anzovin as saying "dips--t" and "f–k" - without writing out these words in full. He acknowledges that such words are not appropriate for the JTA, yet he can't see any reason that they would not be appropriate for Torah study?!

When I mentioned these points, someone naturally responded that I was the hypocritical person here, since I didn't like it when my own writings were banned for being disrespectful. But this is not true at all. I objected to the (false) claim that there is no Torah tradition of reading Genesis non-literally or of saying that the Sages erred in science. I most certainly accepted that in charedi society, this approach contradicts social norms of respect, which is why I willingly withdrew my books from that society.

Anyone who claims that there is nothing irreverent about using obscene language, even in today's society, is simply being dishonest, certainly with others and perhaps even with themselves. If you want to believe that Judaism does not require reverence, go ahead, it's a free society. However, many of us have an extremely reasonable case to make that Judaism always has and still does require reverence. And we will object to those who claim otherwise.

(For further reading, see Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind, about the value of respect).


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Thursday, January 27, 2022

Two Tombstones

One of the most beloved people in Britain was television personality Jimmy Savile. He hosted a show called Jim'll Fix It in which he made children's wishes come true. He raised tens of millions of pounds for charity and was knighted by the Queen for his philanthropic work. When he passed away, at the age of 84, a magnificent and very expensive tombstone was erected over his grave, which described his many achievements.

A few months later, it emerged that he had been one of the worst sexual predators in the country.

Within weeks, Savile's family had arranged for the tombstone to be removed, to have the words ground off it, and for the stone to be destroyed. In a statement, they said that "The family members are deeply aware of the impact that the stone remaining there could have on the dignity and sanctity of the cemetery. Out of respect to public opinion, to those who are buried there, and to those who tend their graves and visit there, we have decided to remove it." It was added that they feared the grave could become the center of a media circus.

A few months ago, it emerged that the beloved children's book author Chaim Walder had been one of the worst sexual predators in Israel. Shortly afterwards, he took his own life. His family had the following tombstone erected:


Now, how is it possible that secular non-Jewish society does not tolerate the glorification of a serial rapist, and charedi society does tolerate it?

It seems to me that a significant part of the answer is freedom of speech. In the UK, there is freedom of speech. The victims of Savile, and those who advocate for them, are able to voice their criticism.The press is perfectly ready to print it and to call for justice.

In charedi society, on the other hand, there is very little freedom of speech. Yated Ne'eman, the "mouthpiece of the Gedolim," even printed a glowing obituary for Walder and would certainly not print anything about his crimes. Ami magazine published a cover-up claiming that charedi society deals with such problems perfectly well; they won't acknowledge an ongoing travesty. Even Mishpacha magazine, which published articles calling for change, doesn't want to dwell on it, and certainly not to air a new problem. Savile's family feared a media circus; Walder's family need fear no such thing.

Another manifestation of this problem occurred early this week. Charedi media outlets reported the passing of "Harav Lipa Margulies, zt”l, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Torah Temimah" and sang praises of his holy life. Readers would have no idea that victims of sexual abuse at the hands of Yudi Kolko, a rebbe at Torah Temima for thirty years, sued Lipa Margulies for waging a "a campaign of intimidation, concealment and misrepresentations designed to prevent victims from filing lawsuits." 

In fact, when the horrors at Torah Temimah came to light around fifteen years ago, Mishpacha magazine asked Rav Shlomo Miller "Why don't rabbanim take a firm stand on developments in frum life, such as denouncing perversions and corruptions, wrong agendas, wrongdoers?" Although it was obvious that Margulies and Kolko were the background to this question, they wouldn't name them. Rav Miller responded that rabbanim do indeed take a firm stand on perversions and corruptions and did name a name: "Charedi rabbanim opposed the views espoused by Rabbi Nosson Slifkin, and rejected him speaking in the name of Orthodoxy." He then went on to admit that "Certain improper acts have happened in a yeshivah and were covered up when they shouldn't have been." But he didn't name any names for that case.

And today something else happened that readers of Yated, Hamodia, Ami and Mishpacha will never see reported. Charedi MK Yaakov Litzman reached a plea deal in which he will resign from the Knesset, admit to breach of trust and pay a symbolic fine rather than face charges over having prevented the extradition of serial predator Malka Leifer. This admission of breach of trust will never be admitted in the pages of charedi newspapers and magazines.

The Torah is adamant that evil must be punished and publicly denounced. This is just one of the ways in which mainstream institutions in the charedi community go against the Torah.


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Tuesday, January 25, 2022

At the Watershed between Charedi and Post-Charedi

There is a fascinating article in the online modern-charedi Tzarich Iyun magazine by Rabbi Yehuda Greenwald of Neve Shlomo congregation in Haifa. It's about the failure of leadership in charedi society regarding Covid, Meron, and the Walder horror. Rabbi Greenwald spells out many of the ways in which charedi society failed prominently and miserably in each of these three cases. He also recognizes the cause of these failures - the isolationism, the distrust of science and professionalism and government, the haphazard nature by which charedi society governs itself, the vagueness of leadership, the focus on the needs of the smaller community rather than the larger one. Yet, as a committed member of the charedi community, Rabbi Greenwald writes that the solution lies with... the Gedolim.

"The proper leadership of the Jewish People is, indeed, “The heads of your tribes, your elders, and your officers, every man of Israel” (Devarim 29:15)... Even today, we certainly believe that it is good that the Gedolim lead our community with a strong hand... We need to demand answers, to find those suited to answer them (Gedolim of our generation) and ensure they speak a loud and forceful voice of Torah and reason."

Alas, Rabbi Greenwald is so very close to the watershed moment, but has not yet reached the other side.

The problems that Rabbi Greenwald correctly recognized in charedi society will never be solved by the charedi Gedolim. Because, from the charedi perspective, they are not problems of rabbinic leadership - they are features of it. More precisely, they are inherent aspects of the fundamental nature of that society.

As I explained in my monograph The Making Of Charedim, charedi society is all about isolationism. Distrust of science and professionalism and government is inevitable and even valuable for reinforcing cultural identity. And the related issue of anti-rationalism means that rabbinic authority is vested in precisely those who are least suited to wield it - the Talmudists who are isolated from science and society but who, precisely for this reason, are believed to possess authentic, supernatural Daas Torah.

One can only hope that Rabbi Greenwald and the many others like him will soon take the next step, as emotionally difficult as it may be. Once out of the charedi mindset, one can fully recognize the importance of being part of the nation of Israel. One can acknowledge that rabbinic leadership is not to be found in ivory-tower Talmudists, but rather with those described by Rav Eliezer Melamed as true Gedolim:

"They definitely are important talmidei chachamim (Torah scholars) whose fear of sin precedes their wisdom, educate many disciples, and it is a mitzvah to respect them. But they are not Gedolei haTorah. Gadlut beTorah necessitates an all-embracing, fully accountable handling of serious issues facing the generation, including: the attitude towards Am Yisrael in all its diversity and various levels – both religious, and non-religious; the attitude towards mitzvot of yishuv haaretz (settling the Land) and the on-going war which has surrounded it for over a century; the attitude towards science and work, and the contemporary social and economic questions."

Let's hope that the tragic trio of Covid, Meron and Walder will bring people to cross the watershed.


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Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Happy 99th Birthday!

Yesterday I had the honor of wishing a happy 99th birthday to a very special person: Mr. Irving Horowitz of Queens. 

Our chapter in Mr. Horowitz's story began 86 years ago, in the mineral club of the Brooklyn Children's Museum. This club was started by Mr. Jack Boyle, the Museum's first mineral curator, to spark kid's curiosity about Earth. He took the kids on field excursions to mine and collect specimens, gave them access to the Museum's mineralogy lab with tools, and had them print a mineralogy newsletter "Pay Dirt" - on a printing press.

This club inspired an interest that led its young members to lifelong achievements and contributions. One of its members, who had been introduced to Uranium in the club, became a nuclear engineer. A girl in the club became one of America's first female geologists. From his mapping and charting skills learned in mineral club, Irving Horowitz helped make aeronautical charts and maps for the Allied forces during World War II. Mr. Horowitz taught earth sciences for more 50 years in NYC public schools and Brooklyn College and rewrote the textbook used to prepare students for the Earth sciences regents exam.

Mr. Horowitz has been collecting and teaching about minerals ever since. And last year, his son, Michael Horowitz reached out about displaying part of his collection, his lifelong love and work, as the beginnings of the Museum's mineralogy exhibit. His goal is to share his love of this aspect of the natural world and its beauty -- here in Israel. The minerals arrived a few weeks ago, and we are in the process of setting up this remarkable exhibit!

We are grateful and humbled for the opportunity and the work ahead as we begin to catalog and prepare the display and exhibit. Happy 99th birthday, Mr. Horowitz. And thank you!


Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Hitler's Rabbis Return

As you may remember, last year I reported about the dangerous antics of Rabbis Yaron Reuven and Yosef Mizrachi. First, they created a video in which they declare that fourteen rabbis (including yours truly, but also such luminaries as Rabbi Sacks ztz"l) are evil heretics who are worthy of execution. Then Reuven declared regarding a student who had asked challenging questions in his lecture that "it's my job to destroy him - if it was legal, I would kill him." All this might be just silly and amusing, were it not the fact that Reuven and Mizrachi count violent criminals and unhinged people among their devoted followers, and suck in many others

Then, they did something even worse. Reuven published an appalling video in which he declared that it was understandable that Hitler wanted to exterminate the Jews, since they morally corrupted German society and destroyed the economy. This false and horrific claim was gleefully picked up by antisemites of various kinds as proof that even Orthodox rabbis acknowledge that Hitler was justified in hating Jews. Yosef Mizrachi also published a video in which he refers to Mein Kampf in order to claim that Hitler hated us "because we went away from Hashem" and thus "technically we brought it upon ourselves."

(Someone made a video with extracts from all these lectures, which Reuven managed to get deleted from YouTube - I can send it to you if you email me, and I would appreciate it if people can find ways to share it.)

And now, Reuven and Mizrachi returned with another way to harm the Jewish People. One prominent rabbi that these little jackals are particularly jealous of and despise is the very successful Rabbi Efrem Goldberg of Boca Raton Synagogue. Yesterday, Rabbi Goldberg hosted an important event about celebrating solidarity with Israel, which included Pastor Mario Bramnick. Reuven and Mizrachi saw an opportunity to attack Rabbi Goldberg, and started campaigning about how Rabbi Goldberg is inviting "proselytizing Christian missionaries" to his synagogue. One of Reuven's associates even faked a letter from Rav Hershel Schechter condemning the event. And other followers sent graphic death threats to Rabbi Goldberg.

Unfortunately, even some decent people have been misled into thinking that there was something improper about the people invited to the event. (Note that I am not getting into the political aspects of the event, which are an entirely separate matter.) The claim goes that since Mario Bramnick has issued statements about how he would like to see Jews convert to Christianity, surely he is clearly a missionary and must not be invited to synagogues.

On the face of it, this may seem like a reasonable claim. But if you understand more about Pastor Bramnick, and about religion, and about history, then you realize that this claim is not only baseless, but also dangerous. 

I discussed the matter with Rabbi Yitzchak Adlerstein, who has been working in matters relating to other religions on behalf of the Wiesenthal Center for many years, and he put it as follows: Mario Bramnick was vetted extensively, and shows no sign over many years of engaging in missionary activity directed at Jews. Like all good Christians, he would like to see everyone in the world accept Christianity. But what is important to us is not what he would like, but what he does. And what he does is run a very large network of Hispanic churches that teach people to be good and to be warm and supportive towards Jews and the State of Israel. In this day and age, that is of crucial importance.

Rabbi Sacks, ztz"l, was an extraordinary teacher and ambassador of the Jewish People. Rabbi Efrem Goldberg, shlita, is a tremendous asset to the Jewish People. Pastor Mario Bromnick is a crucial friend to the Jewish People.

Yaron Reuven and Yosef Mizrachi, on the other hand, are a menace and danger to the Jewish People.


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Tuesday, January 11, 2022

The Skunks on Noah's Ark Prove God Exists

After my previous episode of extraordinary hashgacha pratis revolving around my Noah's Ark tie, I then had an even more miraculous occurrence!

Among the numerous WhatsApp groups for the various combinations of staff at the Biblical Museum of Natural History is one called "Museum Chat." This is the one for anything that is not work related, where anyone can post whatever they want. The other day, one of our guides shared the following cartoon:


Okay, it's only mildly amusing. But here is the amazing thing. I had just purchased a model Noah's Ark for our forthcoming exhibit at the museum (which had not yet arrived, and which the staff didn't know about), and it was this:

Do you see what's on the left side of the model?! Unbelievable! Can this be a coincidence? I don't think so!

The crazy thing is that when I decided to buy this Ark (out of the many hundreds of different types available on Ebay), it never occurred to me that the skunks were in a separate boat for that reason! I chose this Ark because there is something about it that sheds light, in a fascinating way, on which country it was made in, with ramifications for the topic of Biblical natural history. See if you can guess what that is! It's very difficult, but there is a clue in this post.

Logistics Request: If you are able to help with driving a Noah's Ark from Manhattan to West Hempstead, or bringing some models to Israel from Toronto, San Franciso or Atlanta, please be in touch!

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Monday, January 10, 2022

Religious Resha'im

When Chaim Walder killed himself, the awareness of his terrible crimes had not yet become too overwhelming for anyone to deny. As is well known, there were various significant people and institutions maintaining his innocence (either because they genuinely believed it, or because they figured that they could get away with such a pretense). 

In the notorious obituary printed in Yated Ne'eman, it describes Walder's greatness in his Torah studies. As a child in Talmud Torah, he was known for being "blessed with talent," then in Mishkan Yaakov he was "greatly beloved to the Rosh Yeshivah." He then graduated to the famous Kol Torah yeshivah, where he "grew to glory." Then in Knesses Chizkiyahu he was "drawn to the deep shiurim of the Rosh Yeshiva."

A week later, Rabbi Moshe Meiselman claims that Walder "did not have much of a yeshiva background," didn't do well in either Kol Torah or Knesses Chizkiyahu, had "very little knowledge of Torah" and was not successful in yeshiva.

Well, which is it? I have no idea who is telling the truth and who is falsifying things; both the Yated and Rabbi Meiselman are notorious for falsifying matters to serve their agenda. But could it be true that such an evil person was successful in yeshivah? Could it be that he grew as a ben Torah, as a talmid chacham?

Before addressing that question, let us turn to another point. There is also a report spreading that in none of Walder's books is there any mention of God. This seems to be based on another claim by Rabbi Meiselman, that years ago it was already clear that there was something wrong with Walder, because "in 15 children’s books, he does not mention the Ribbono Shel Olam once, which is highly suspicious." Well, a commentator to an earlier post decided to actually investigate the claim, and randomly looked at two of Walder's books. He found that they were absolutely full of references to the Ribbono Shel Olam, as well as to religious themes in general!

Obviously Rabbi Meiselman's claim is false, though it well serves his agenda of arguing that Walder was a rasha because he wasn't a proper Ben Torah. But what are we to make of Walder's references to God? Was all this just part of his elaborately crafted manipulations? Or did he really believe in God? 

This is a broader question that goes beyond Chaim Walder. Do frum resha'im - those who attack women, those who steal from others - believe in God? And if not, is their entire frum appearance just a scam? I've been thinking about this topic for many years, and seeking insights of others. And my tentative conclusions are as follows.

It seems to me that it's comparable to the charedi purported belief that learning Torah protects from harm. A lot of people who purport to believe this act in such a way that clearly shows otherwise. During one of the Gaza wars, the Grodno yeshivah relocated from Ashdod to Beit Shemesh, and claimed that they were providing protection to Beit Shemesh (which, unlike Ashdod, didn't need it. They obviously don't really believe that Torah protects. But they nevertheless believe that they believe it.

It's difficult to know to what extent anyone - good or bad - actually believes in God. Some people have a high code of moral conduct, and they may believe that this is because they fear God, but who knows if this is really the reason. And even those who do act immorally believe that they believe in God.

The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt reports that overwhelmingly, evil people do not believe that they are doing evil. Everyone, even Nazis, rationalizes to themselves that they are doing the right and necessary thing. Accordingly, it does not conflict with their self-image. A women who confided in me about how she was molested by a prominent person in the American yeshivish community told me that when she asked him if Hashem wanted him to be doing this, he assured her that Hashem understood. And he probably believed it.

The Gemara tells us that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai's dying wish for his students was that their fear of God should equal their fear of man. The Gemara's point is that people's fear of God - even the disciples of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai - is generally less than their fear of man. (And the corollary of this is that what stops people committing crimes is not fear of God so much as it is fear of man.) But all such people certainly believe that they fear God!

In my life, I have known, to a greater or lesser degree, five sexual predators. All of them were rabbis. (This should certainly not be taken as any indication that all or most or many rabbis are sexual predators - I know many hundreds of rabbis!). With two of them, it was obvious from the outset that there was something seriously "off" about them. But with the other three, there was no indication. With one of them, even though I now know intellectually that he is a predator, I still can't begin to wrap my head around it. And all five rabbis were, and four still are, very frum. They sincerely believe that they sincerely believe in Hashem, and act accordingly in all areas of bein Adam LeMakom.

It's important for people to realize this. Because otherwise, people let their guard down. And people reject claims that "real" rabbis could be harming people. And if people are harmed by a very frum, very knowledgeable rabbi, they are inclined to believe that it must be they themselves who have a problem.

I would like to finish by reminding everyone that if you actually want to make a difference about all this, there is something concrete that you can do. You can support the efforts of the amazing but woefully underfunded organization called Magen. (It will also be nice for them to be receiving donations instead of the numerous death threats that they are getting lately.) You can learn more about their work, and send a donation, at their newly updated website http://magen-israel.org.


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Friday, January 7, 2022

Mini-Me, But More So

It's obvious that my youngest child, age nine, is a mini-me. He is obsessed with animals in general, and Noah's Ark in particular; he is an enthusiastic artist and paints endless pictures of Noah's Ark. Last Shabbos I was looking at a book which included pictures of art related to the Bible, and I came across this picture:


I called over my son to look at it. He immediately said, "Whoah, Aba! It's your tie!"

And he was right!


Along with all my animal ties, I have several Noah's Ark themed ties. This was one that I had bought many years ago and no longer had a label. I had never assumed that the particular picture on it was anything special (apart from being artistically delightful), and lo and behold, now I knew that it was based on a painting by Hugo Sperger!

But who was Hugo Sperger? I discovered that he was born in Mirano, Italy in 1922, and his family immigrated to America through Ellis Island in 1929. After serving in the Pacific in World War II, Hugo found factory work in Indiana, then married and moved to Kentucky. But in 1970 he was diagnosed with cancer. Battling with illness, he was unable to work and fell into a depression. His wife bought him paints to keep him occupied, and Hugo had found his calling. He astonished his doctors by living for another twenty-four years, during which time he painted hundreds of paintings, many on Biblical themes.

I love it when a picture has a story to go with it - and especially when the picture is on my tie! And I would never have discovered this, had I not discovered that the picture in the book was on my tie. The funny thing is, I almost never wear that tie anymore - I hadn't worn it in years. And then I had worn it on the exact Shabbos that I was reading this book!

I was commenting on the serendipity/ hashgacha of that all day long. Finally, my little nine-year-old, in an exasperated tone, said, "Aba! There's billions of things in this house! It's not amazing that sometimes, two things would be the same!"

I always knew that he was a mini Zoo Rabbi - but apparently he's also a mini Rationalist!

Shabbat Shalom!


 

 


The Making of a Predator

Many are acclaiming a powerful talk about Chaim Walder delivered by Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, rosh yeshivah of Toras Moshe. Full disclosure: Obviously, this is something that is difficult for me, given that (a) he was one of the worst behaved of anyone in the controversy over my books, slandering me personally, (b) he displays extreme dishonesty in his anti-science polemics, and (c) I despise his anti-Zionism, which led him to sit on the dais at the infamous "Israel is an evil regime" rally in Manhattan. Still, listening to his talk, I figured that even a broken clock is right twice a day. It's not a tremendous achievement to condemn a serial rapist, and there is presumably some schadenfreude for Rabbi Meiselman getting to criticize Rav Edelstein and Rav Eichenstein, who are on the other side of the Etz/Peleg dispute. But at least he got it right about Walder. Right?

Well, that's what I thought, until I got some feedback from professionals in the field. They were concerned about serious problems in his talk, which to be honest, hadn't occurred to me. But then again, I'm not remotely a professional in this area, which is why I run everything past professionals for their input.

The first problem is that Rabbi Meiselman stressed how Walder "did not have much of a yeshiva background." He claims that he didn't do well in either Kol Torah or Kfar Chassidim. He repeats that he had "very little knowledge of Torah" and was not successful in yeshiva, which is why he went to the army, "which is not what the elite of the yeshiva world does." 

But, even if this is true, what on earth does it have to do with anything? The message being implicitly given over is that this explains how he could have become a predator, and that a person who succeeds in yeshivah, who has real knowledge of Torah, does not become a predator. If only that were true! It's mistaken attitudes like this which led people to believe that Rabbi Meir Pogrow, who was tremendously successful in yeshivah and became an outstanding Torah scholar, could not possibly be a predator. It's very dangerous to teach people that Torah scholars cannot be predators.

The second problem is what Rabbi Meiselman presents as the "take-home" practical message from all this. According to Rabbi Meiselman, the lesson is that laxity about modesty and looking at forbidden things can lead one down the slippery slope of becoming a predator. He stresses that cellphones and the like are the first step in the descent towards absolute evil.

I had no idea if this was true or not, so I consulted a professional, who told me that it is entirely false. Losing control over one's attraction to others might cause one to engage in a forbidden relationship, which is no small crime. But becoming a serial predator is generally a very different thing, which involves a personality that enables someone to manipulate others and not care at all about the power imbalance and the harm that they are directly causing others.

Does it matter if one does not realize the difference? According to the person that I asked, it matters very much indeed. The problem with rabbis thinking that predators are people who gave in to the regular yetzer hara is that they think that this can be solved with the regular tools. We can get him to do teshuvah! He'll get rid of his cellphone! If he's single, just get him married so that he stops abusing. And if he's already married, then it's his wife's responsibility to give him more satisfaction! Tragically, it's this naivete which prevents rabbis from reporting predators to the police, who are the only ones with the power to actually prevent them from harming people.

Finally, of course, all the problems and safeguards discussed by Rabbi Meiselman are only relevant to harm committed by men to women. But what about harm committed by men to boys - or by women to girls?

As someone pointed out, such rabbis should not be giving their perspective on these topics. They should either be running their planned speeches past professionals, or inviting the professionals to speak instead of them. Rabbis, even brilliant ones with long beards, need to accept the limits of their expertise and authority.


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Thursday, January 6, 2022

Bad Ideas and Better Ones

In the wake of the Walder tragedy, a certain suggestion has come up several times. Rav Aaaron Lopiansky, Jonathan Rosenblum and others, who fully acknowledge the problem of sexual predators in charedi society, have called for the establishment of rabbinic committees and Batei Din to deal with these problems. They stress that these Batei Din must be professionally operated, have access to experts (i.e. non-rabbis), and must be accepted by the charedi community and have real authority. I discussed this suggestion with someone who actually works in the field of dealing with abuse, and they pointed out that such ideas, while well-intentioned, are not very good, for all kinds of reasons.

One reason is that they are trying to create the impossible. There is no such thing as setting up a body that will be accepted by everyone. The charedi world is immensely fragmented. Even the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah can't issue authoritative directives - a Beit Din for abuse certainly couldn't, and probably couldn't even come into existence.

Another problem is that the two crucial requirements of such a Beis Din - that it be professional and authoritative - are inherently incompatible. Professionalism requires a number of components that are fundamentally unacceptable to large swathes of the charedi community. No major rabbinic figure will issue rulings that are transparent and accountable to others. And if there's ever a clash between professional opinion and rabbinic prestige, or between public danger and charedi public image, the latter will likely take precedence. Does anyone think that a figure as powerful as Rabbi Leib Tropper would have been adequately dealt with by a charedi Beis Din? Or Walder himself, had he not killed himself - even if an "acceptable" Beis Din would have found him to be dangerous, would they have issued a public warning, causing a tremendous PR disaster for the charedi world? Of course not.

The normative societal procedures for dealing with these dangers - social services and the police and even the press - have all kinds of problems and limitations, but they are nevertheless the ones that should be used. The charedi community does not need a new rabbinic body in place of professionals and state agencies, it should be encouraging people to go to professionals and state agencies.

But, given the unique nature of the charedi community, there is certainly a need for a special organization. It needs to be comprised of people with inside knowledge of that community, who have professional training, who will investigate accusations, who will work to help victims, who will bridge the gap between charedim and the police, and who will engage in efforts to improve the general approach to abuse in the charedi world. 

And such an organization actually already exists. It is called Magen, and it does incredible work. I've been in touch with them over several issues and I've always been blown away by their professionalism, courage and accomplishments.

For example, after Rav Yehoshua Eichenstein spread Rav Edelstein's statement about Walder being killed by the terrible people who spread lashon hara about him, Magen took several abuse victims to visit Rav Eichenstein. While he didn't explicitly retract and apologize (being a Gadol means never having to say you're sorry), he did issue an highly significant letter about the importance of sympathy to victims and the need for them to get help, and added that there is no problem of lashon hara.

So, rather than wish for an impossible Beis Din that will never come into existence, I urge everyone to do something concrete about the situation and support Magen's efforts. You can learn more about their work at http://magen-israel.org, and you can donate to them at this link.


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Wednesday, January 5, 2022

"We Can't Judge Rapists. Only Journalists."

I was hoping to move on from the Walder mess, but something came to my attention which has to be addressed. It's something that Rav Berkovits mentioned, and which has been vaguely messaged from many parts of charedi society. But now I saw it spelled out, nauseatingly, in an essay by the generally wise and respected Rebbetzen Tziporah Heller-Gottlieb. Seriously, I feel that I have to give a warning before linking to her essay, as it is immensely triggering.

People have been sending me statements and recordings from a variety of rabbis and educators in the charedi world who condemned Walder, as if to point out their greatness, but that's a pretty low bar. Yes, Rebbetzen Heller acknowledges Walder as a serial predator. But there are a number of very serious problems with her essay. And for a woman of such influence to be saying such things is truly disturbing.

First of all, Rebbetzen Heller describes Walder as having suffered a non-Torah punishment called "Death By Shaming." This is an amplification of the terrible message sent out by Rav Gershon Edelstein, and it is wrong, wrong, wrong. No, Walder was not killed by others, and he did not die of shame. He killed himself on the day that the police started on his case, in order to avoid the consequences and trick people into martyring him. It was perfectly appropriate and necessary for everyone to shame him. And to guilt victims into thinking that they hold some responsibility for his death is horrific.

Then Rebbetzen Heller describes Lashon Hara as a "killer." Well, yes, it can be, but this was a case where speaking badly about Walder was a mitzvah and had nothing to do with his death (and would still have been a mitzvah even if it had caused it). Almost unbelievably, she invokes the verse of Lo saamod al dam reyacha (do not stand by as your brother's blood is spilled) as applying to Walder as well as his victims! Needless to say, that is a complete and utter perversion of the passuk.

But then comes the problem which I alluded to at the beginning of the post. Rav Berkovitz had mentioned something about not judging people, but Rebbetzen Heller goes into this in great detail. She writes that "you can’t ever allow yourself to be a judge unless you are a genuine dayan who has to adjudicate a case." She writes that success and fame led Walder to "lose his balance." She claims that "Pirkei Avos tells you not to judge anyone until you stand in their place, where something pure remains." 

This is so, so wrong, and such a perversion of Judaism. We absolutely must call out and condemn evil when we see it. The Torah is full of exhortations in that regard! Moshe not-yet-Rabbeinu did not have to wait for a Beis Din before accusing the Israelite beating another Israelite of being a rasha. And as for the misuse of the Mishnah in Avot 2:4, which states, "Do not judge a person until you have stood in their place," it has nothing do with assuming that something pure exists within everybody. It's simply encouraging us to think twice before taking a holier-than-thou attitude to someone for making a bad decision in a difficult situation. It doesn't mean that we shouldn't condemn serial murderers and rapists, for Heaven's sakes!

The most bizarre thing about Rebbetzen Heller's essay is that for all that she goes on about how one cannot judge people, and how even someone like Walder had something pure inside him and produced books that were "sensitively written," she has no qualms whatsoever about performing a judgment and character assassination on the Haaretz journalist that exposed Walder! She describes him as "supercilious" and as someone who spends other people's money digging up dirt on the Orthodox community, and says that he has little regard for the truth. Aside from the total lack of hakarat hatov for these journalists being the only ones who finally caused Walder's abuse to stop and did what the chareidi leadership could not and would not do, what happened to all her moralizing about not judging people?! Does that really only apply to charedi rapists, and not to secular whistle-blowers?!

It's just astonishing that such a generally wise and revered educator can send such terrible messages. Not surprisingly, there was an enormous backlash by those of her followers that are on Facebook (which may reflect a particular demographic; one fears that her non-Facebook disciples might be swallowing what she says). As I was writing this, Rebbetzen Heller issued a sort of clarification/ apology, in which she says that it was hard for her initially to accept that such a beloved figure could have been such a monster, and she regrets not demonstrating more sympathy for the victims. But she does not actually retract anything she said, and she doubles down and says "death by shaming is real" and that while this particular Haaretz expose happened to be correct, one can never accept such stories without their being verified by a Beis Din (!). This is a total perversion not only of Judaism, but of plain common sense. 

Yes, there are fortunately plenty of charedi rabbis and educators saying the correct and obvious thing now. But the terrible, dangerous messages sent out by the likes of Rav Leff and Rebbetzen Heller - precisely the people who are generally widely respected for the wisdom and inspiration that they impart - need to be denounced. I wish that people actually in the charedi community would do this rather than me, but unfortunately this isn't happening.

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Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Exposing Predators and Deference to Gedolim

Rav Yitzchak Berkovits is rosh kollel of the Jerusalem Kollel, rosh yeshiva of Aish HaTorah, a prominent voice in parts of the Anglo-charedi community, and regarded as a sensitive authority on interpersonal relationships, although he has no professional training in that area. VIN News published a powerful video from him about Chaim Walder, a recording of a Zoom presentation to therapists and mental health professionals. Rav Berkovits makes powerful and excellent points about Walder, but his discussion about rabbinic authority is somewhat perplexing.

Rav Berkovits forcefully states the obvious truths that everyone in the Orthodox community should have said: Walder was a predator, a sociopath, a murderer who destroyed lives. He also points out that there are probably many more victims that we don't even know about. He has no sympathy for Walder's suicide, saying that it was not done out of mental depression but rather out of his narcissism and  manipulative inclinations. He says that there is no concern of lashon hara regarding Walder, as there are many constructive purposes in talking about it. And he says that his books have absolutely no place in anyone's home.

Rav Berkovits also makes some very important points about abuse and its prevention in general which are diametrically opposed to the message given by Rav Leff. He says that while it can happen that accusations are false, that is the exception rather than the rule. He insists that victims' testimony is absolutely acceptable even if it is not given in the presence of the accused. And he also says that he does not see any justification for men to ever act as private counselors/ therapists for women or have private meetings with them.

All this is entirely correct and appropriate. But this means that Rav Berkovits is faced with a problem: that the leadership in the charedi world didn't take this approach at all. And he attempts to address this.

Rav Berkovits claims that there are effective Batei Din that deal with these things, and he has "no idea" why the Walder situation was not dealt with. And he says that doesn't understand how when the revelations came out, and the suicide note, Walder was not treated accordingly. He notes that people are asking (and he seems to be asking it himself), "How can it be that a Gadol B'Yisrael can play dumb, and let him have his last laugh, and buy his story?"

And what about the rabbis and newspapers trying to silence all discussion about Walder's crimes? Rav Berkovits notes that in the world of the professionals with whom he is speaking, it's taken as a given that these things should be publicized, for reasons of justice as well as alerting people to dangers and making it more difficult for predators to act. And he agrees with that! Lemaan yishma'u veyira'u, he says - it's important to publicize these things.

So, then, why did the charedi leadership instead take a very different approach? Rav Berkovits says that they decided to change the buzz in the homes and the chadarim, for the sake of kedusha, and despite the fact that they will be criticized as primitive, from the topic of sexual predators to the topic of bein adam l'chavero (i.e. avoiding lashon hara), and to deal with things b'tzniyus. "They (the Gedolim) are older and wiser and understand priorities in Klal Yisrael. I hope you allow yourselves to understand this." But he then immediately admits that he's not happy, because they covered up for Walder's suicide, and for other unspecified (but easily guessed) reasons. And at the end he says that he's "sure that the Gedolim are rethinking things." But then he switches back again and says that we must accept their conclusions, whatever they are, because they are "older and wiser."

It's interesting that VIN News presented Rav Berkovits as having "clarified the position of the Gedolim in this complex matter." What Rav Berkovits actually did was to give their reasons, but only after presenting his own reasons for taking a very different approach, which seemed much more convincing. Rav Berkovits says that we must nevertheless take a leap of faith that whatever the Gedolim decide is correct, even if they initially made the wrong call, because they are older and wiser. 

And there is the crux of the matter. Do you believe that the charedi Gedolim, who are generally older, and know a lot of Gemara, are necessarily wiser? Or do you accept the statement of Chazal, powerfully presented by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, that being a great Talmudist does not at all necessarily mean that one is a wise person? And do you instead accept Rav Eliezer Melamed's definition of a Gadol B'Torah?


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Sunday, January 2, 2022

A Dati Leumi Disgrace?

In the wake of my post criticizing the moral bankuptcy of charedi rabbinic and political leadership over the Walder case, a number of people challenged me regarding dati-leumi rabbinic leadership. There were two criticisms: first, that I hypocritically avoid calling out problems in the dati-leumi community, and second, that the dati-leumi community has just the same failings as the charedi community in this regard.

With regard to the first criticism, it is not at all true that I avoid calling out problems with the dati-leumi rabbinic leadership. I once harshly condemned Rav Druckman, in a post titled A Stain On Religious Zionism, for his protection of Motti Elon. And today I am perfectly willing to call out Rav Shlomo Aviner for his undermining the accusations against Walder. And Rav Tau, who insists that Walder was perfectly innocent, is worse than any charedi rabbi.

But Rav Aviner and Rav Tau do not reflect a fundamental problem in dati-leumi society in the way that people like Rav Edelstein and the Yated reflect a fundamental problem in charedi society, for two reasons.

One is that they are both marginal figures. Rav Aviner might have been aiming for the position of mainstream dati-leumi a few decades ago, but in the last twenty years he has been steadily discrediting himself among the mainstream and is now respected as a rabbinic authority only in a narrow segment of dati-leumi society. And Rav Tau, who claims that the accusations against Walder are part of a conspiracy because he criticized the Supreme Court, is an utterly fringe figure, regarded by the vast majority of dati-leumi society as a lunatic.

The second factor is the difference between the ways that charedi and dati-leumi society are structured. In charedi society, someone like Rav Edelstein is revered as a Gadol HaDor, which means that few would dare to overtly criticize him. And in parts of charedi society, the only material people read is Yated Neeman and the like. Dati-leumi society, on the other hand, is entirely different. Anyone can and does readily criticize rabbinic authorities such as Rav Druckman when they feel that he has done something very inappropriate. And people are reading newspapers such as Mekor Rishon, which readily printed a confrontational and seriously accusational interview with Rav Aviner.

Thus, problematic statements about Walder in dati-leumi society are marginal and readily discounted. The same is not true of charedi society. Yes, there are an increasing number of voices, including medium-level rabbinic voices, condemning Walder and announcing support for victims. But the problematic statements are being made by enormously influential rabbinic leaders whom many follow unquestioningly and others do not dare openly dispute, and by prominent people in the mainstream of charedi society.

Today it was brought to my attention that no less than Rav Zev Leff, a very popular and mainstream rabbinic figure among American charedi-lite communities, delivered a terrible shiur about the Walder case. He says that there is no proof that Walder is guilty (!). He gives equal likelihood in general to complaints about sexual abuse being genuine and being fake (!!). And he says that complaints can only be taken seriously if the victims present them to a proper Beis Din in the presence of the accused (!!!). And that anything else is forbidden lashon hara (!!!!). And that Walder's books, even if he is guilty, are perfectly fine and they should be kept, since he is already dead and presents no further harm, so the books don't hurt anyone (do the victims not exist?!).

I asked a person who works for a victim-advocacy organization to write a public response to Rav Leff. The person replied said that if they issued a response to every rabbi that is saying something terrible and ridiculous right now, they wouldn't have time for anything else at all. (The person did share some good news is that there are things going on behind the scenes which will hopefully bear fruit in the near future.) 

Meanwhile, there is a video by victim advocates going around in which they say that there is a Vaad HaRabbonim for everything under the sun - where is the Vaad HaRabbonim to deal with sexual predators and helping victims? I'm sure that the makers of the video mean well, but a "Vaad HaRabbonim" to deal with these problems is the last thing that we need. As we saw with Meron, the basic problem with charedi society is that they think that they are equipped to manage things on their own, and do not need to be part of national professional standards.


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