Sunday, February 27, 2022

Paging Toras Moshe

It's very peculiar. Rabbi Dovid Kornreich of Yeshivas Toras Moshe obsessively ran a blog against me for ten years. He follows this blog carefully, often commenting. And yet he didn't comment at all about a post last week in which I discussed his rebbe, Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, and his favorite topic, Torah and science. 

I'd like to call on Rabbi Kornreich, or anyone else from Toras Moshe, to find out Rabbi Meiselman's answers to the following five difficulties with his interview on R. Dovid Lichtenstein's show. Since Rabbi Meiselman presents himself as a uniquely great expert on the topic of Torah and science, and argues that anyone who takes the rationalist approach of Rabbeinu Avraham and Rav Hirsch is a heretic, surely he owes it to the general public to explain how his position is consistent with all the sources from Chazal that he neglected to cite in his book.:

1. Who are the Chachmei Yisrael?

Rabbi Meiselman argues that the Chachmei Yisrael who asserted that the sun goes behind the sky at night were astronomers rather than Torah scholars. Yet the term Chachmei Yisrael is used by the Gemara to refer to a Torah scholar upon which one recites a blessing: הרואה חכם מחכמי ישראל אומר: “ברוך אתה ה’ אלוהינו מלך העולם שֶחָלַק מחכמתו ליראיו”. 

Furthermore, as we see in Bava Basra, Pirkei d'Rebbi Eliezer and Midrash Rabbah, this position is attributed to named Tanna'im.

2. The Claim that it wasn't a Torah-Based Belief

Rabbi Meiselman insists that these Chachmei Yisrael were not espousing a Torah-based position. But in other places in the Gemara and Midrash, we see that this position was was based on pesukim:

"It was taught in a Beraita: Rabbi Eliezer says, the world is like an exedra, and the northern side is not enclosed, and when the sun reaches the north-western corner, it bends back and rises above the firmament. And Rabbi Yehoshua says, the world is like a tent, and the northern side is enclosed, and when the sun reaches the north-western corner, it circles around and returns on the other side of the dome, as it says, “traveling to the south, and circling to the north…” (Eccl. 1:6)—traveling to the south by day, and circling (outside of the firmament) to the north by night—“it continually passes around, and the ruach returns again to its circuits” (ibid.)—this refers to the eastern and western sides, which the sun sometimes passes around and sometimes traverses (and thus is always on the horizontal plane). (Bava Basra 25a-b)

Rabbi Eliezer is presenting the view attributed in Pesachim to the Sages of Israel, in which the sun rises up behind the sky at night, while Rabbi Yehoshua is presenting a variant in which at night the sun moves horizontally along the northern edge of the celestial dome. He bases this on a passuk. And so, contrary to Rabbi Meiselman's claim that this position is a non-Torah based position of non-Talmidei chachamim, we see that it is the position of Tannaim and is based on pesukim.

3. Chazal's Belief in Spontaneous Generation

Rabbi Meiselman insists that Chazal never espoused a concrete or Torah-based belief in spontaneous generation. How, then, does he explain the following discussion in Chazal:

"I might think that a swarming creature causes impurity, but a mouse that is half flesh and half earth, which does not reproduce, does not cause impurity. But it is logical: The rat causes impurity and the mouse causes impurity; just as “rat” is as its meaning, so too “mouse” is as its meaning (and thus a mouse that is half flesh and half earth would transmit impurity). Yet alternatively, one could say, just as the rat procreates, so too the mouse referred to is one that procreates, which excludes a mouse that is half flesh and half earth and does not procreate! Therefore it teaches us, “[And this is impure for you] amongst the swarming creatures (basheretz) [which swarms on the land]”—to include the mouse that is half flesh and half earth, that one who touches the flesh becomes impure and if he touches the earth he remains pure." (Midrash Sifra, parashas Shemini 5:6; Talmud, Chullin 127a)

We see here that Chazal were very convinced that a spontaneously-generating mouse existed (as did everyone back then), and moreover interpreted a passuk in the Torah as specifically serving to include it.

4. The Gestation of Animals

Rabbi Meiselman says that Chazal's statement about the Nachash having a gestation of seven years refers to a particular species of snake which does indeed do that. What, then, does he say about the statements on the same page of Gemara about the gestation of the wolf, lion, bear, leopard, cheetah, elephant, and monkey being three years? And even if one were to insist that the term "gestation" actually refers to something else, what on earth could it possibly be? Besides, the same page describes the gestation of the dog and cat as being around fifty days, which is broadly accurate, and which makes claiming that the phrase means something different with regard to wolves etc. unsustainable.

The same page states that "Any species in which the male has external genitalia bears live young; any in which the male has internal genitalia, lays eggs." As a general rule, this is strikingly accurate, and the Gemara's rules are often only meant to be general. However, this section of Gemara is intending to give absolute rules, as evinced by the fact that the Gemara on the previous page names the bat as an exception to its rule that every lactating mammal gives birth to live young (ironically, the bat is actually not an exception to this rule). And as an absolute statement, it is incorrect that any species in which the male has internal genitalia, lays eggs. Whales, dolphins, elephants, giant anteaters, and hyraxes all have internal genitalia (which makes it very difficult for us to identify the sex of the hyraxes that we have at the museum), and none of them lay eggs.

(If you want to avoid this problem by arguing that the Gemara is talking about genitalia that are permanently internal, then you run into a problem with the first part of the Gemara's statement, which would have to correspondingly be referring to species in which the genitalia of males are not permanently internal and are extruded for copulation. But the males of many reptiles, and even some birds, extrude their genitalia, and yet they do not bear live young.)

The Gemara later says that "It was taught that the camel copulates back-to-back." Although a camel's penis normally points backwards, it twists it around to the front during mating, so that they copulate front-to back, unlike as described in the Gemara.

Since Rabbi Meiselman insists that it is heretical to doubt any definitive statement in the Gemara, can he explain how to reconcile these statements with the physical reality?

5. "Serious Talmidei Chachamim"

Rabbi Meiselman claimed that no genuine Torah authority ever said that Chazal could have been mistaken about a scientific matter (in which they spoke definitively): "Rav Soloveitchick never said Chazal chas v'shalom made a mistake.. no serious talmid chacham ever said that." Yet here are a few (of many) citations from people generally considered to be talmidei chachamim who said precisely that:

Rav Hirsch: "If, as we see things today, these instances are considered fiction, can the Sages be blamed for ideas that were accepted by the naturalists of their times?"

Rav Yitzchak Herzog: "The attitude of the orthodox Jew towards the scientific matter embedded in this colossal mass of Jewish religious learning may be best summed up in the words of R. Abraham Maimuni, the great son of the greatest codifier of Jewish law and the foremost Jewish philosopher of the Middle Ages. “It does not at all follow,” Abraham Maimuni declares in his classical introduction to the Haggadah, “that because we bow to the authority of the sages of the Talmud in all that appertains to the interpretation of the Torah in its principles and details, we must accept unquestionably all their dicta on scientific matters, such as medicine, physics and astronomy. We ought to be quite prepared to find that some of their statements coming within the purview of science are not borne out by the science of our times...” It is of importance to bear this in mind when we enter upon the study of science in the Talmud."

Rav Hershel Schachter: "[Chazal] clearly also relied on the scientists of their time, as we all do. Sometimes this means that they relied on what was later discovered to be the scientific mistakes of their time."

Does Rabbi Meiselman rate all these people as being "not serious talmidei chachamim", or does he wish to revise his statement?

Again, since Rabbi Meiselman presents himself as a uniquely great expert on the topic of Torah and science, and issues the striking accusation that anyone who takes the rationalist approach is not a serious talmid chachim and is moreover a heretic, surely he owes it to the general public to explain his position in detail. We look forward to hearing his responses.

(If you'd like to subscribe to this blog via email, use the form on the right of the page, or send me an email and I will add you.)

Thursday, February 24, 2022

The Most Staggering Deception and Hypocrisy

Should the Kotel have an area for egalitarian prayer services? Should Conservative and Reform and unaffiliated Jews have a space to pray in a way that they feel comfortable and to which they are accustomed? 

Most people have a knee-jerk reaction to this question, but there are in fact complicated issues and reasonable arguments to be made. I'm not going to get into them here, but what I'd like to marvel at is the sheer dishonesty of the organization spearheading the fight against any change.

If you're going to argue that there should be no change, that the site should follow traditional Jewish forms of prayer, that the authenticity/ historical power of tradition should carry more weight than pleasing relatively recent movements, and it's irrelevant if people in those movements are delegitimized and will not feel at home at the Kotel, fine. You can call your organization "Defenders of Tradition" or "Guardians of the Temple" or something like that.

Incredibly, however, the organization taking on this cause calls itself "Am Echad - One People"!

Their tagline is an extraordinary accomplishment of dishonest talk: "Am Echad aims to unite Jews from the Diaspora and Israel around the goals of preserving our 3,000-year-old heritage, deepening cooperation among our communities, and upholding Jewish interests in Israel and around the world." Of course, what they are actually doing is trying to prevent any cooperation between the Orthodox community and other communities. The only "unity" that they want to promote is that of the Orthodox community, and only so that they can fight together to delegitimize other communities.

It's obvious why they decided to be deceptive in their description of themselves - unity is a much more appealing motif than being exclusionary. But the dishonesty is galling. And take a look at how they describe the first of the areas in which they operate, "Religious Freedom":

Freedom of religion should be an unalienable right of every individual. For Jews, religious practice has been the bedrock of our national existence for over 3,000 years. Our rich tradition informs every facet of Jewish individual and communal life. Preserving the ability of every Jew to observe the laws and customs of our tradition freely is a critical goal of Am Echad. We work with local Jewish communities around the world to stem attempts to infringe on religious liberties.

In other words, when they speak about the importance of "Religious Freedom," they mean the exact opposite! They mean that Orthodox Judaism is the only legitimate expression of religion, and any other expression is not be legitimized!

And it gets even worse. This organization is not just dishonest - it's extraordinarily hypocritical.

At the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly (JFNAGA) several years ago, Am Echad was furious that Orthodox voices did not receive sufficient representation. They campaigned about this as follows:

"As the the rift between different sectors of the American Jewish community widens and points of identification become no longer in common, we find it vital that all Jews be represented at the #JFNAGA, because after all is said and done, we are still One Nation."

"Anybody purporting to be the voice of an entire nation should have representative voices from all sectors of that nation."

The hypocrisy is simply staggering!

Am Echad should either live by their own stated principles or admit that they don't actually believe in them.

(If you'd like to subscribe to this blog via email, use the form on the right of the page, or send me an email and I will add you.) 

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Operation Edible Squid

Can anyone help the museum with the following transportation missions: 

  • A device for making edible kosher squid, from Berlin to the US (or to Israel)

  • A suitcase of Noah's Arks, from NY/NJ to Israel

  • A Noah's Ark cuckoo clock, from Pittsburgh to anywhere except Pittsburgh

  • A special ultraviolet light for making scorpions fluoresce, from the UK to Israel

  • A suitcase of Noah's Arks, from Atlanta to Israel 

Thank you!

Monday, February 21, 2022

Why I Chickened Out

A few months ago, in a post titled What Can Be Done? I wrote about a certain Terrible Situation which has been going on for many years at a certain institution - a form of severe emotional abuse and long-term life harm. In a follow-up post, titled, What I'm Going To Do, I wrote that I was leaning towards writing a series of posts about the situation to raise awareness. But, aside from a single vague post about the definition of a cult, I never did. 

In light of the fact that I've since written several posts about the problem of abuse, a number of people have challenged me, very reasonably, as to why I am not exposing the case that I know about. And so I would like to explain why.

Basically, I did a cost-benefit analysis. I looked at the likelihood of my posts actually preventing anyone from being harmed, and it appeared slim. The people who attend this institution or who send their children to it are unlikely to find out about my posts, or to be swayed by them even if they were to read them.

Meanwhile, I am not as invulnerable to people who want to harm me as I thought I was. I run an institution, and it's not too difficult to make headaches for it. Even though my museum is not remotely controversial or problematic in any way, and I'm just one of over a dozen people on staff, there might be people who are sufficiently crazed and crazy that they would seek to harm me by harming the museum. And even the personal campaigns against me, while they don't bother me at all, are upsetting for certain members of my family.

And so that's why I decided not to write anything about it. You can call it "chickening out" if you want. I am rationalizing it to myself by arguing that I've taken up many causes, often suffering a result, and I don't need to take up every one. 

But if you feel that such causes should be taken up, there are those who do so, and who would be able to be even more successful if they had funding. I am speaking about Magen, a woefully underfunded but critically important organization at the forefront of tackling abuse in the Orthodox community. They just launched a fundraising campaign, and I urge people to support it at this link.

(If you'd like to subscribe to this blog via email, use the form on the right of the page, or send me an email and I will add you.) 


Saturday, February 19, 2022

The Turning of the Tide?

Rabbi Dovid Lichtenstein (henceforth RDL) has a popular podcast called Headlines, in which he sometimes asks tough questions of the people that he interviews - a rarity in the charedi world. In his latest episode, on the topic of Chazal's knowledge of science, he interviews five people.

First, he interviews Professor Maoz Kahana, a sort-of-charedi professor of Jewish history from Tel Aviv University. This is itself significant - that a discussion of this topic, interviewing Gedolei Roshei Yeshivah, also asks academics for their view. (Unfortunately, Prof. Kahana's English is not that great, and it is quite difficult to follow.) RDL tries to pin him down on whether statements about all knowledge being in the Torah mean that the Tannaim could extract science from the Torah. Kahana responds by pointing out that it also stated that every Torah insight that anyone will ever expound is already in the Torah. And just as that does not mean that the Tannaim could extract any Torah insight, they likewise could not extract scientific knowledge.

Next, RDL interviews Rav Mendel Shafran from Bnei Brak. Much to my surprise (since Rav Shafran endorsed anti-science quackery), he gives a very reasonable approach. In a very memorable quote, he says, "My wife can make a better kugel than Moshe Rabbeinu, and it's not kefirah to say so!" He explains that it's not a deficiency for Chazal not to know something about science. This is a very important point that many people in the charedi world are unable to grasp, and it's refreshing to hear it being presented.

Then RDL interviews Rav Dovid Cohen, who is extremely disappointing. He invokes "sod Hashem liyreyav" to argue that Chazal had hidden sources of knowledge - but as I point out in my book Rationalism vs. Mysticism, Chazal only invoked that principle as a theoretical possibility in three cases, and clearly did not see it as being generally operative. Rav Cohen naively claims that Chazal knew lots of things before modern science. I've investigated dozens of such claims, and in every case, I found that it was either (a) something that non-Jews in antiquity also knew, (b) something ambiguous that could be interpreted in all kinds of ways, or (c) something that is not actually true. Rav Cohen adds that we can "never" be sure if they are speaking literally or not (which is easy to say about aggadata, but not at all regarding other areas). But then when RDL points out that R. Yehuda HaNasi says regarding dispute regarding the sun's path at night that the non-Jews appear correct, Rav Cohen admits that it could be.

Next, RDL introduces R. Moshe Meiselman. Alas, RDL mistakenly claims that he is "uniquely qualified to speak about this topic" since he is a graduate of MIT. In fact, his degree was in mathematics, which is entirely irrelevant to expertise the natural sciences, and may even be detrimental to it. And as for the college courses on science, Rabbi Meiselman goes against the entire consensus of scientists in the natural sciences, who would consider his approach regarding the world being only a few thousand years old to be ludicrous. Would we speak about the credibility of a self-styled medical expert who did college courses on medicine but is deemed to be a crank by the entire medical establishment?

RDL begins by asking Rabbi Meiselman about Rav Soloveitchik's take on these issues. R. Meiselman responds by saying "Rav Soloveitchick never said Chazal chas v'shalom made a mistake.. no serious talmid chacham ever said that." Of course, the fact is that very many serious talmidei chachamim said exactly that... including pretty much all the distinguished talmidim of Rav Soloveitchik, such as Rav Hershel Schachter! I am more inclined to believe that Rav Soloveitchik's talmidim accurately reflected his approach, rather than that they all turned out to be heretics.

Then, RDL asks about the Gemara in Pesachim regarding the dispute about the sun's path at night, where the chachmei Yisrael took the position that the sun goes behind the sky, and R. Yehuda HaNasi notes that they appear to be mistaken. Rabbi Meiselman claims that these chachmei Yisrael were astronomers rather than Torah sages, and thus it was a dispute regarding astronomy and not Torah, regarding which R. Yehuda HaNasi had no mesorah. Alas, RDL is not familiar enough with the topic to point out to Rabbi Meiselman that the position of the chachmei Yisrael is espoused by Tannaim in Bava Basra and Midrash Bereishis Rabbah, in which they base it on their understanding of pesukim.

Rabbi Meiselman is also hasty to stress that there are many Acharonim who claim that the Gemara means something entirely different anyway. Indeed there were - Rabbi Meiselman is not the first to be uncomfortable with Chazal not knowing where the sun goes at night. Still, surely the approach of all the Rishonim, still continued by many Acharonim, should hold greater weight.

RDL pushes further. If the Sanhedrin can make a mistake about halacha, he asks, why can't Chazal make a mistake about science? Rabbi Meiselman's response is that "the Gemara is definitive." Which hardly seems to answer the question.

Then RDL asks about the Gemara's statements regarding the gestation periods of various animals. Rabbi Meiselman responds that "there are specific snakes that do have a gestation of seven years." Alas, this is not actually true. And unfortunately, RDL does not question him about the Gemara's statements that the gestation of the wolf, lion, bear, leopard, cheetah, elephant, and monkey, is three years. Perhaps someone can ask Rabbi Meiselman about this? Were Chazal also only speaking about particular types of wolf, lion, bear, leopard, cheetah, elephant and monkey that are unknown to modern science?

Finally, when RDL asks about the mouse that is generated from dirt, Rabbi Meiselman states emphatically that "Chazal did not believe that there is a spontaneously generating mouse." Of course, just as in his book, Rabbi Meiselman neglects to address the fact that Chazal had a derashah from the Torah specifically for the mud-mouse.

RDL summarizes the situation as there being three views: that Chazal were fallible, that they spoke in metaphor, and that they were infallible. And he concludes by saying that he doesn't see any reason that Chazal's statements about science should be considered "halacha pesuka."

Frankly, I think that this is amazing. It's only been seventeen years since the charedi Gedolim declared it unthinkable and heretical to say that Chazal could have been mistaken on science. And now a prominent charedi radio host, based on an interview with a prominent charedi Rav, says that such a view is within the spectrum of legitimate views! It seems that the tide may be turning.

Friday, February 18, 2022

Abuse: The Lessons Not Learned

After the Walder horror unfolded, we thought that perhaps the charedi community, generally a few decades behind the rest of society, had learned the necessary lessons. Perhaps many people did. But not everyone.

Two weeks ago, authorities in France arrested the entire faculty of a yeshivah. Sixteen rabbis at Beth Yossef in Bussières were charged, not with sexual abuse, but with aggravated assault against the sixty minors at the yeshivah, including their being “locked up, confiscation of their identity documents, poor conditions, acts of abuse, lack of access to education and healthcare, and no possibility of returning to their families.” Vos iz Neias News quotes multiple students as saying that they were severely physically beaten.

Now, I don't know exactly what happened, but it is obvious that there are, at the very least, serious grounds for great concern. But according to one sector of Orthodox society, it's all an anti-religious conspiracy.

The Lehovin newspaper represents the most extreme sector of Lithuanian charedi Jewry in America. Under the leadership of Rav Aharon Shechter of Chaim Berlin, they are kin with the Etz/Peleg faction in Israel. And the latest issue has much to say about the situation in France.

The newspaper insists that it is inconceivable to think that talmidei chachamim could be guilty of abuse:

"A talmid Chochom and tzaddik, well into his eighties, who has been moser nefesh to be mechanech and megadel talmidim, was locked up like a criminal... Talmidei chachomim who are devoting themselves to teaching Torah and raising talmidim, were all thrust into prison on “allegations” and “suspicions" ...Do a cheshbon hanefesh for a moment. If you even believed the possibility of their guilt, you have violated many grave sins. If you are unsure, hilchos shemiras haloshon should be on your urgent “to do” list."

Dismissing the accusations of physical abuse as "vague," Lehovin engages in a tirade about what they claim this is really about - that the yeshiva refuses to teach evolution and have mixed classes! And it's all part of the Global War Against Torah.

I had decided not to write about this, because I figured that it was of limited relevance; Lehovin represents a minority group that is opposed and ridiculed even by most charedim. But then I read some other things which made me realize how widespread a problem this is.

Recently a prominent Rosh Yeshiva was arrested for raping various young men and women, including his own children. A person from Magen who was involved in helping the victims was discussing the story, and someone mentioned that after the Walder affair, they met a woman from the charedi community who said that such a thing could never happen with a real rabbi. This woman was absolutely scandalized at the notion that a genuine rabbi could possibly ever commit such crimes, and ridiculed the possibility.

This is why Rabbi Meiselman's insistence that Walder was not a true charedi and not a true talmid chacham is so dangerous. It reinforces the false and dangerous yet pervasive belief that "real rabbis" cannot do evil. In an extremely powerful letter written by a survivor of Walder, she addresses Rav Aaron Lopiansky's call to address the fatal problem of the "halo effect" - the mistaken notion that someone who does good, cannot possibly be bad. She points out that this "mistaken notion" is absolutely fundamental to charedi society and is not going to disappear. Emunas Chachomim, in its absolute broadest sense, is the bedrock of the charedi world. They are not about to change their entire approach and start teaching that roshei yeshiva can be rapists.

And this is why the charedi community is a pedophile's paradise. 

If you'd like to do something about this, please donate to Magen, at this link

(If you'd like to subscribe to this blog via email, use the form on the right of the page, or send me an email and I will add you.) 

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

The Ghostbusters Analogy

On the occasion of the release of the new Ghostbusters movie and the passing of the original director Ivan Reitman, I am re-posting something that I originally posted back in 2014 on the occasion of the passing of the parshan Harold Ramis.

The original 1984 Ghostbusters movie was immensely popular. Most people loved it for its hilarity; some for its fantastical elements. I was intrigued by a different aspect of it, and it's something which provides a useful analogy for understanding the difference between rationalist and mystical approaches to various Jewish concepts.

For those who didn't see it, Ghostbusters was about a group of eccentric geniuses/ dropouts who launched a career catching ghosts. The shtick of the Ghostbusters was that they discovered that it was possible to design technology that could detect ghosts, and ultimately to subdue and contain them. PKE meters, proton packs, muon traps - these were gadgets that used physics but could detect and interact with metaphysical phenomena.

Behind the concept of Ghostbusters, then, lies four ideas:

1. Spiritual phenomena exist as entities;
2. They follow precise laws;
3. These laws are connected to the laws of the physical universe;
4. Physical objects can manipulate spiritual phenomena by way of these laws.

The rationalist stream of Jewish thought denied pretty much all of these four ideas. As explained in my book Rationalism vs. Mysticism, according to Rambam, concepts such as kedushah and tum'ah are states of mind rather than metaphysical phenomena. The reward for mitzvos is the effect on one's mind rather than in some sort of spiritual world. There are many examples of this. Mezuzah creates a reminder rather than a force-field. Shiluach ha-kein teaches us compassion rather than engineering a celestial courtroom drama with angels. And so on, and so forth. Without the first idea in the list above, the latter three don't even begin.

The mystical stream of thought, on the other hand, posits the existence of all kinds of spiritual entities. These relate to, and can thus be influenced by, the physical universe, though not in exactly the same way as with Ghostbusters. The Ghostbusters used technology to create physical forces that directly interact with the spirit world. The mystical stream in Judaism, on the other hand, proposes that physical items create spiritual forces which in turn affect the spiritual and material world. However, there are still valuable points of analogy. Just like an improperly calibrated proton pack will not subdue Gozer the Gozerian, so too a mezuzah missing a letter will not create a protective force-field - even if the missing letter is a result of, say, termites attacking the parchment.

My point in this is not to mock the mystical stream of thought - just to note how very far apart it is from the rationalist stream of thought. I believe that appreciating that these are simply two very different worldviews, each the result of a rich heritage, helps avoid friction between people who adhere to different streams. Good fences make good neighbors, and all that. Don't cross the streams!

(If you'd like to subscribe to this blog via email, use the form on the right of the page, or send me an email and I will add you.) 

Positive Phenomena

Yesterday, we were privileged to host Dr. Nachman Shai at the Biblical Museum of Natural History. He rose to fame during the original Gulf War, as the spokesman for the IDF, and is now the Minister of Diaspora Affairs.

MK Shai greatly appreciated the experience and praised it on his Facebook page as "exciting, educational and enriching." And we are in discussions regarding cooperative educational projects with the Ministry of the Diaspora for teachers and schools in various parts of the world. 

However, later on yesterday, we received a message from his office regarding a positive result about which we are not so happy:


Saturday, February 12, 2022

No Laughing Matter

I was wrong.

When Yaron Reuven's acolytes produced, with his approval, an hour-long hate video against me, in which I was portrayed with a swastika tattoo and condemned as an "antisemite heretic," I thought that it was very funny. It didn't bother me in the slightest, and I told people not to make a fuss about it.

But I was wrong.

Indeed, it does not personally bother me, and I do not consider myself to be any danger. But that's only because I live in Israel.

Yaron Reuven is leading a very dangerous movement. In the past, I have pointed out how he is a danger to the Jewish People due to his irresponsible and slanderous videos falsely justifying Hitler's accusations against the Jews, which have been gleefully shared by antisemites to hundreds of thousands of people. But he's also dangerous in another way. 

Reuven is declaring that all kinds of people (and not just me) are heretics who are deserving of the death penalty in Judaism. But that's just the horrifying start.

Reuven further takes the horrific step of claiming that this is actually a practical ruling that is only limited by civil law. In perhaps the most shocking statement ever uttered by someone with the title of rabbi, he declares regarding a young man who challenged his lecture that "if it were legal, I would kill him."

The other aspect which makes this particularly dangerous is that Reuven (and Yosef Mizrachi), with their fetish for talking about punishment and suffering and violent deaths, attract a particular type of people - those who are violent. Mizrachi has openly boasted about this, while one of Reuven's most enthusiastic followers is a hate-filled felon who served time for stabbing someone. 

Such people, when they hear it drilled into them that various rabbis are dangerous Nazi-like heretics who need to be killed in order to save the Jewish nation, and that the only reason not to kill them is that it is not legal, may not be able to restrain themselves. They may well decide that since they don't care about what it is legal, they will do the Right Thing.

After Reuven's lackeys sent death threats to certain rabbis, the police and FBI were informed about Reuven, and have questioned him. But it appears that they are not able to act at this point.

It seems to me that the only way to limit Reuven's influence is to remove any claim that he has to credibility. Since he proclaims himself to be a rabbi based on receiving semicha from the Rabbinic Alliance of America, they need to publicly denounce him. Several people have asked them to do this in the past, but so far to no avail. I urge people to continue to pressure them, before something terrible happens. Contact information can be found here.

(If you'd like to subscribe to this blog via email, use the form on the right of the page, or send me an email and I will add you.) 

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Top 5 Dangerous Reforms in Orthodox Judaism

There is a popular myth that Orthodox (and specifically charedi) Judaism represents a basically unaltered approach to Torah and Judaism that has been in existence since Sinai. In fact, it has undergone all kinds of transformations. Some of these are beneficial responses to a changing world; others are relatively harmless. But there are some innovations which might have been driven by good intentions, but have catastrophic consequences.

There is a long list of such harmful innovations, such as the evolution of expensive "requirements" for getting married, the removal of pictures and names of women, and the replacement of various spiritual and material work by segulos. Some of these reforms pose a serious threat to society as a whole. Here, in ascending order, is my view of the most dangerous reforms that have arisen:

5) The notion that material endeavor has no real significance

In traditional Judaism, while God always had the ability to control things and intervene, our material endeavor had genuine significance. But recently, the idea evolved that there is no cause-and-effect in the physical world, that everything is solely dictated by spiritual merit. Accordingly, this meant that people perceive such things as work and army duty as a charade that has no real significance and is merely a "price" that must be paid for maintaining an illusion. Aside from the logical and empirical problems with this approach, it inevitably has the effect of people not taking worldly effort seriously. (For more on this, see my post The Soldiers Are Really Doing Stuff)

4) The creation of "Daas Torah"

While rabbinic counsel was always part of Judaism, traditionally it was valued insofar as it reflected wisdom - the Sages observed that a Torah scholar could lack wisdom and be "worse than a rotten carcass." Furthermore, rabbinic counsel was valued in accordance with it reflecting knowledge - both of the world, and of systems of thought. The modern concept of Daas Torah inverts that, and proclaims that knowledge of Torah (even just Talmud) automatically produces wisdom. It further states that the ultimate guidance (which is considered tdaco be binding) comes from those who are the most isolated from general knowledge of the world. (For more on this, see my monograph The Making of Haredim)

3) The redefinition of Torah Lishma

For Chazal and the Rishonim, "Torah Lishma" was the opposite of Torah Shelo Lishma. It meant that rather than learning for the sake of glory, one was learning for the right reasons - primarily, knowing how to be a good Jew. But when R. Chaim of Volozhin wanted to counter the chassidic notion that Judaism is exclusively about spiritual closeness to God, he reframed the concept of Torah Lishma to mean learning Torah as an end unto itself. Rav Chaim may well be rolling in his grave at where this led. With the rise of the welfare state, this led to an ever-growing community who believe that they are being good Jews and contributing to society by learning in kollel and living off the rest of society, even while they are causing tremendous damage to Israel's economy. (For more on this, see my book Rationalism vs. Mysticism)

2) The idea that the reward for mitzvot can be transferred to anyone

In classical Judaism, the merit for mitzvot is accrued to those who perform them (and to their ancestors who made them into such people); there was simply no mechanism by which someone could choose to transfer it to somebody else. But in the 19th century, the idea evolved that you can choose to transfer the merit for mitzvot to whomever you want. This innocent-sounding idea made a dangerous combination with the previous innovation about Torah Lishma. It enabled those who do not contribute to the economy to convince people to give them money, on the grounds that they are allegedly providing a service for they or their loved ones by learning Torah or doing mitzvot on their behalf. (For more on this, see the chapter "What Can One Do For Someone Who Has Passed Away?" in my book Rationalism vs. Mysticism)

And finally, the most dangerous by far of all the reforms in Orthodox Judaism:

1) The devaluing of self-sufficiency

Classical Judaism maintained (as does every other culture in the world) that self-sufficiency is important. Chazal stated that it is better to engage in a lowly trade than rely on communal support. They extolled the value of work. They said that it is obligatory for parents to raise their children with the ability to provide for themselves. Modern charedi society, on the other hand, has thrown that out of the window. It is considered perfectly acceptable and even an ideal to be supported by others, and to raise one's children without the education or ability to earn a living. While that was manageable when the charedi community was small, it now creates ever-increasing harm to the State of Israel and is actually an existential threat.

(If you'd like to subscribe to this blog via email, use the form on the right of the page, or send me an email and I will add you.) 

Monday, February 7, 2022

Antisemite Heretic: The Movie

There's an intriguing new movie that was just released by my zealous opponents. The title is "Natan Slifkin: Why Did Gdolei HaDor Warn Us About Him?", and the subtitle is "Nathan Slifkin is an antisemite heretic." The fabulous artwork for the movie features Rashi, Rabbi Avigdor Miller, Rav Ovadia Yosef, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and none other than the Rambam, along with the Torah itself, against all of whom is pitted a rather interestingly photoshopped version of me. I have a green face, my mouth has been replaced with that of an ape, my body is that of a monkey with a tail, and I'm holding a banana. Somewhat disturbingly, I have what is supposed to be a swastika (but which is actually a Hindu symbol for good luck) tattooed on my forehead. Behind me lurks my laptop with this blog, and a demonic figure which is either Sauron or Satan.

The film itself is an astonishing one hour and ten minutes long. Alas, it's mostly rather boring (though the soundtrack is riveting), with slowly-scrolling text asserting that evolution is false and I am an evil heretic, etc. Among the damning evidence against me is that I wrote posts praising Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis of the UK, and that I am a friend of Rabbi Daniel Korobkin of the Bayt shul in Toronto and Rabbi Efrem Goldberg of BRS. 

There are also a handful of terrific action scenes. At one point I get eaten by a great white shark! There's also a part where my stunt-double is performing some extremely dangerous aerobatics on some kind of jet-powered skateboard, apparently warning of the danger of my ways. And at the very end, there is a group of apes dancing in synchronization.

The film was produced by an acolyte of Yaron Reuven and distributed with his approval. Apparently, they are rather angry that I drew attention to how Reuven (and Yosef Mizrachi) have engaged in some very dangerous antics, including providing material for genuine antisemites by producing videos which (falsely) claim that Hitler was correct to hate the Jews because they really did corrupt and destroy Europe.

Now, a number of people were very upset by this video, and were concerned for me. I appreciate the sentiment, but really, it's not necessary. I think that this video is fabulous! I hope it doesn't get taken down (unlike the rest of Reuven's videos, which I sincerely hope are removed).

This has nothing to do with being thick-skinned (which I am not). Yes, I get upset when people like Rabbi Meiselman spread lies and slander about my personal life and about what my books actually say. But it doesn't bother me at all when people claim that I am going against the Torah as they understand it - because they are absolutely correct! Of course, the rationalist approach to Torah is the complete opposite of their understanding of it. And when they mock me as a green-faced monkey-bodied swastika-tattooed spawn of Satan, I don't think that my reputation has been compromised.

Honestly, the only thing about the video that bothered me was that it sometimes misspelled my name as "Nathan," with an "h." But, as one of Reuven's followers explained, the "h" is for heretic!

(If you'd like to subscribe to this blog via email, use the form on the right of the page, or send me an email and I will add you.) 

Saturday, February 5, 2022

A Grievous Error

Dear Rav *****, 

Greetings, I hope you are well. Let me begin by saying that I have admired you for many years. Which is why I was severely disappointed to see that you signed on the letter of condemnation against Rav Eliezer Melamed, shlita. 

There is probably no point in my saying that I have found his works and actions to be worthy of great praise, since you undoubtedly feel that they are wrong and dangerous. However, I would like to share with you a perspective that you may not have realized. 

Seventeen years ago, several dozen leading rabbinic figures in the charedi world campaigned against my books on Torah and science. They believed my books to be a perversion of Torah and dangerous. And, from the perspective of their worldview, they were absolutely correct! The rationalist approach of Rambam and others to these issues is indeed completely at odds with their perspective, and it certainly poses dangers from any perspective. 

However, there was something that they failed to take into consideration. They were so outraged and concerned about my books, and so convinced of the justice of their cause and of their own legitimacy and authority, that they failed to take into account the consequences of their actions. 

This is the 21st century. People do not react well to seeing a group of rabbis ganging up to ban a popular rabbi for espousing an approach that resonates with the general public. The backlash was immense. The prestigious rabbis who denounced my books were themselves denounced, as well as despised, ridiculed and scorned. Rav Aharon Feldman, of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, told me that the Gedolim looked like fools. He set out to defend their charges - which, of course, did not convince a single person, and merely undermined his own honor. The rabbis who tried to delegitimize me themselves lost legitimacy, and nowadays even their own followers are embarrassed to discuss it. 

Furthermore, the entire incident created an immense crisis of confidence in charedi rabbinic authority. There were thousands of people in the chareidi community who decided that this community was not for them. Many of them upped and left - some to the Centrist/ Modern Orthodox community, while others left Orthodoxy altogether. The entire effort by these charedi Gedolim to bolster rabbinic authority and prevent people straying had the exact opposite effect. 

The same will happen here - probably even more so. Rav Melamed is much more popular and respected than I was; over a million copies of his works have been printed. There is absolutely no doubt that he is one of the most successful teachers of Torah in our era. And he has (justly, in my view) earned the respect of many, many talmidei chachamim. What will we be seeing as a result of the campaign to ban his works and delegitimize him?

In my shul today, the Rav spoke about it. He mentioned how he has his personal areas of disagreement with Rav Melamed. Nevertheless, he said, Rav Melamed is a Gadol B'Torah. He slammed the condemnations of Rav Melamed as an absolute disgrace, a bizayon of Torah of the highest order. 

I have seen similar reactions from many other dati-leumi rabbanim that I know. And if this is the reaction by rabbis, can you imagine how it looks to the general public? Do you think that families in your community will respect your actions? And how does it look to the wider public? Rabbis fighting and denouncing each other? And all following the lead of Rav Tau - someone is so caught up in his religious zeal and paranoia that he claimed that Chaim Walder was an innocent person who was framed by an anti-religious conspiracy? 

It is not too late to try to mitigate some of the disgrace and damage. You could issue a letter of retraction. You could say that while you disagree with Rav Melamed on serious issues, you nevertheless respect him as a Torah scholar and regret attempting to delegitimize him. I know that this is a difficult step to take, but the net gain in respect for the religious community in general and you in particular will be considerable. 


Natan Slifkin

NOTE: You can purchase Rav Melamed's works in Hebrew at this link and in English at this link. You can also show your support for Rav Melamed by donating to Yeshivat Har Bracha at this link.

UPDATE: Looks like some of the accusers are already frantically backpedaling. See here.

Friday, February 4, 2022

The ADL Backpedals Embarrassingly

Earlier this week, I pointed out that the ADL had changed its definition of racism from a perfectly reasonable definition to a ridiculous CRT-influenced definition which restricted it to only applying to black people. In the greatest irony, only days later Whoopi Goldberg claimed that the Holocaust had nothing to do with racism because Jews are white, and Jonathan Greenblatt was explaining why she was wrong - even though what she said was perfectly consistent with the ADL's own definition! 

After a storm of criticism (or perhaps only as a result of the Whoopi Goldberg fiasco), the ADL retracted this new definition, and Greenblatt wrote a long piece admitting that it was woefully lacking and excluded antisemitism. But the obvious question is how an organization dedicated to fighting antisemitism could possibly make such a ridiculous and terrible error in the first place. And the obvious answer is that they are staffed by the wrong type of people.

Meanwhile, the ADL has posted what they call an "interim definition" of racism. As a friend pointed out, it's quite remarkable that a major organization dedicated to fighting racism can't even figure out what it is. 

(For another interesting perspective, see this article. And for a satirical video which is definitely not to everyone's tastes, see here.)

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

On Criticizing Gedolim

Can a regular person criticize a Gadol B'Torah? 

There are many people (usually, but surprisingly not always, in the charedi world) who believe that this is utterly inappropriate. However, if we look at the actual sources and practices in traditional Judaism, we see a very different picture.

First of all, it should be noted that some people (especially in the comments section of this blog) use terms like "bash" and "denigrate" when they are referring to statements coming from people that they don't like, whereas they use terms like "criticize" when they are referring to statements coming from people that they do like. For the sake of precision, I am referring only substantive criticism of the content of a person's speech or actions, not to ad hominem personal disparagement such as calling someone a "nobody."

Let's further deal separately with criticizing a Torah opinion, and criticizing conduct. 

Criticizing the opinion of a great rabbi can be done by anyone. The only restrictions placed on this are on where it undermines one's personal halachic authority. And as discussed in the chapter "Arguing With God: When May Students Dispute Teachers?" in my book Rationalism vs. Mysticism, even that case is greatly limited in application. Although the Talmud condemns one who disputes one's own teacher, subsequent generations of halachic authorities removed its force greatly by either redefining it altogether, to refer to usurping authority instead of intellectually disagreeing, or by greatly restricting its scope. Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin  writes that not only is a student permitted to disagree with his teacher, he is obligated to do so if he cannot accept what the teacher is saying - and he may well be correct. 

Rav Moshe Feinstein was once asked by a rabbi in Bnei Brak if he was allowed to dispute the view of the Chazon Ish, widely respected as the Gadol HaDor (Iggrot Moshe, Yoreh De’ah III:88). R. Feinstein notes that it is permitted to disagree even with one’s teacher; all the more so with a rabbi who is not one’s teacher, and the difference in age or stature is irrelevant. (See also Iggrot Moshe vol. 2, Yoreh De’ah I:101, p. 186, where he even permits disputing Rishonim.) 

What about criticizing the conduct of a Gadol B'Torah? This is, unsurprisingly, no different than criticizing a Torah opinion. Chazal say explicitly that במקום שיש חילול השם אין חולקין כבוד לרב - in places where God's Name is being desecrated, one does not apportion honor to a rabbi. (And obviously the rabbi himself does not feel that he is desecrating God's Name.) Furthermore, the Gemara (Taanis 20, Eruvin 53) approvingly relates several stories where laypeople criticized various Tannaim and were correct to do so.

Judaism has never believed in infallibility. Great people can make mistakes, and lesser people will sometimes notice that. Chazal further stated that even a Torah scholar can lack wisdom and in some cases be comparable to a "putrid carcass"! Everyone is required to follow their own best understanding of Torah and act accordingly.

The Mystical vs. Maimonidean Mishkan

What is the Mishkan (Tabernacle) all about? The answer to this is worlds apart depending on whether you are a mystic or a Maimonidean rationalist.

If you're a mystic, then the intricacies of the Mishkan's architecture were designed from scratch by God Himself and serve to represent and even channel Divine supernatural energies. The significance of its architecture can thus not be overstated.

If you're a Maimonidean rationalist, on the other hand, physical objects cannot have any metaphysical effects, only symbolic significance. Yet the architecture of the Mishkan is still extremely significant - especially in the 21st century. Because it presents a rejoinder to one of the most serious challenges to traditional Judaism - and in doing so, explains itself. The way in which it does so will deeply offend many people of a mystical persuasion, but I ask them to either not read any further or to bear in mind that it's "different strokes for different folks."

There are many contemporary challenges to traditional Jewish belief. One of them is regarding the historicity of the Exodus. There is certainly plenty of ways in which the impossibly high numbers of people described in the Torah can be more reasonably interpreted - see Rabbi Moshe Shamah's Recalling the Covenant and Rabbi Dr. Joshua Berman's Ani Maamin for examples. But what about the more basic idea of whether there was any Israelite tribe that left Egypt? Many contemporary academics argue that it never happened and that there were never any Israelites in Egypt. They say that the entire story is a fabrication, a back-projection from a much later and geographically distant place.

The Mishkan is a fascinating rejoinder to this claim. Because its architecture is a precise match to a particular type of Egyptian architecture. 

Pharaoh Rameses II engaged in a number of military campaigns. One of them, the Battle of Qadesh, was waged against the Hittites. Rameses boasted of his victory in various hieroglyphics which depict his military tent. When unscrambled from the heiroglyphics, it looks like this:

As observant readers will immediately notice, it is exactly the same as the Mishkan. It sits in a larger compound of the exact same proportions and in the exact same place. Its overall proportions are identical, and it is divided into two sections of the exact divisions of the Mishkan. Even more amazingly, in Pharaoh's tent, two falcons spread their wings protectively over Pharaoh, exactly like the two cherubim spreading their wings over the Ark of the Covenant. Other details of Mishkan architecture likewise precisely match ancient Egyptian architecture. 

Clearly, the most reasonable conclusion is that this part of the Torah was actually composed in the context of Ancient Egypt, not later Babylonia. And thus there is indeed evidence that there were Israelites in Ancient Egypt. (I'd be curious to know what mystics make of the parallels - probably they believe that Egyptian sorcerers were also able to tap in to Divine secrets.)

But why would the Mishkan be an exact copy of Pharaoh's battle-tent? Can't God come up with an original design?

The answer to this emerges from a consideration of Rambam's approach to ritual commandments in general. As noted earlier, the rationalist approach is that they possess symbolic rather than metaphysical significance. The Mishkan relates to God's symbolically being described as Ish Milchamah, a Man of War. In the ancient world, Pharaoh was seen to by all-powerful. The Mishkan attested that Pharaoh's royal battle-tent itself had been commandeered by the God of Israel.

Mystical and rationalist perspectives are often very far apart. But this is a particularly fascinating instance in which, from a mystical perspective, the rationalist approach is blasphemous, whereas from the rationalist perspective, it is saving one of the basic foundations of Judaism.

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

The Shocking News Report You Missed

I'm not sure why this didn't make the headlines. Perhaps because it's not actually surprising, even though it's shocking. But there are certainly people who are unaware of it.

Last month, Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana, and his appointed project manager for Meron, Major General (ret.) Zvika Tesler, traveled to Meron and were presented with a survey of the site. The survey revealed that "other than the stone structure within the gravesite itself, all of the structures were built without permits and in contradiction to the plan." 

Moreover, "since the Unit began its work at the site in the past six months, 45 dangerous and illegal structures have been removed."

I have met people who sincerely believe that the people who lost their lives at Meron did so because of police mismanagement at the time. I have met people who sincerely believe that the tragedy was just "one of those things" that inevitably happens occasionally at mass events.


These tragic deaths happened because a large number of people were part of a society which doesn't care about government permits based on professional, science-based standards.


(If you'd like to subscribe to this blog via email, use the form on the right of the page, or send me an email and I will add you.) 


Tech Tzorress

It has come to my attention that there is a problem with the mailing system for my blog posts. A number of people have been spontaneously de...