Thursday, March 31, 2022

The Kezayis Revolution Continues!

Good news for the Jews! The recent trend of insisting on ever-larger sizes of matza that need to be eaten on Seder night continues to be challenged. The latest work, released into the public domain, is called Zayit Ra'anan, by a Sefardic Torah scholar. You can download it at this link. I haven't had time to study it properly, but the numerous haskamot alone are fascinating in their diversity. Some of the rabbanim are greatly unnerved, some admit that the arguments seem compelling but are afraid to say that anyone other than "the Gedolim" can decide these things, and others forthrightly state that it is obviously true that a kezayit is the size of a contemporary olive.

The monograph that I wrote on the evolution of the kezayis, from the size of an olive to a matzah ten times that size, seems to be the most popular piece that I have ever published. It's now incorporated in my book Rationalism vs. Mysticism, which you can purchase at this link.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monsters & Matzos - a great riddle: what is the connection between the relatively rare findings of ancient whale bones on the coast of Israel, and the large size of matza that many people eat on Seder night?


Meanwhile, the new Biblical Museum of Natural History is open for tours, and will be open over Pesach too. We expect most tours on Pesach to sell out, so book your tour now! Visit www.BiblicalNaturalHistory.org for more details.


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Sunday, March 27, 2022

The Grasshopper Revelation!

This is a revelation!

So, everyone's talking about the miracle of Rav Chaim and the grasshopper. Arguments have been raging on this blog, with many people saying that at the end of the day, the fact (as confirmed by Rav Chaim himself) of the locust appearing when he needed to see one is a clear indication of his supernatural status.

But someone just sent me a video of Rebbetzen Kanievsky, where she describes the story very differently indeed!

Rebbetzen Kanievsky said that when Rav Chaim was learning this topic and writing about it, he was very distressed about not understanding how the locust's wings look. He asked his daughters to find a science book (!) which would illustrate it, but they were unsuccessful. Rav Chaim was distressed, because he felt that he couldn't publish his book on the topic without having seen one. Then, during one Shabbos meal, a locust flew in!

Of course, now the story is completely different. It's not that the locust flew in and landed on his Gemara, or even on his windowsill, exactly when he needed to see one. That didn't happen at all. He needed to see one and couldn't find one. He wanted to get a science book, because that's how he figured that he would be able to find out. And in the end, some time later, a locust flew in to his home - as happens on occasion in Israel, especially in homes which don't have air conditioning and have the windows open.

But the really important point here is not that the story turns out to be not remotely significant. It's that a very mundane story was distorted to make it significant, and then Rav Chaim's mumbled agreement was taken as testimony that the distorted version was accurate!

As I wrote last week: The greatness of Rav Chaim was his commitment to Torah and his humility. Not his being a supernatural figure. That was a myth, created and encouraged by those who benefited from it, in various ways.


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Of Locusts and Leadership

Everyone in the charedi world loves the story about Rav Chaim Kanievsky and the grasshopper. This itself is amazing, because the story actually undermines a fundamental charedi tenet about Daas Torah. It also helps expose a myth about Rav Chaim's leadership.

In the story, the reason why the appearance of the grasshopper was so valuable is that it helped Rav Chaim understand the Torah's description of it. In other words, Rav Chaim did not understand this description of a grasshopper until he actually saw one. Which means that he was not able to derive this halachically-significant information about the world from his knowledge of Torah, extraordinary as it was. Nor did Hashem supernaturally plant it in his mind. He had to actually see a grasshopper in order to understand it.

This directly contradicts the notion that Gedolim such as Rav Chaim are able to obtain supernaturally-sourced knowledge of the world from the Torah, as per the concept of Sod Hashem Liyreyav. Of course, in my book Rationalism vs. Mysticism I show that Sod Hashem Liyreyav was never supposed to be such a far-reaching concept, but that is certainly how vast swathes of the charedi community employ it today. And it's certainly how Rav Chaim was regarded.

People were encouraged to seek and follow Rav Chaim's opinion on topics that he couldn't possibly know about. Should someone have a certain medical procedure? Is so-and-so a tzaddik or an abuser? How dangerous is coronavirus, or the vaccine? Should this boy marry this girl? Does this charity operate with integrity or not? From a non-charedi perspective, asking him such questions was obviously a mistake. But even from a charedi perspective, it's contradicted by the grasshopper story. 

*   *   *

Incidentally, for those who still maintain that the grasshopper story shows Rav Chaim's supernatural status, here's another story, the truth of which I can personally attest. Yesterday, when I was walking home from shul with my adorable youngest son, he complained that we never get to see migrating storks. Literally (and I mean that literally) within seconds, some migrating storks flew overhead! 

Of course, this story doesn't mean that I'm a supernaturally special person.

It means that my son is!


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Thursday, March 24, 2022

Rav Chaim Kanievsky and the Grasshopper

In the aftermath of the passing of Rav Chaim Kanievsky, there are all kinds of things happening. Some are noble, such as people being inspired by his selfless utter dedication to his learning. Some are disturbing, such as organizations seeking donations by marketing dubious supernatural claims made in his name "just before he died!" And some are not especially helpful nor harmful, but are very interesting.

One particular Rav Chaim legend making a resurgence is the famous grasshopper miracle story. Rav Chaim was learning the Gemara about identifying kosher locusts (the swarming varieties of grasshoppers). He was struggling to understand certain aspects of the Gemara's discussion. Just then, a grasshopper miraculously jumped through the window and landed on the Gemara! By looking at it, he was able to resolve the difficulties in understanding the Gemara's discussion.

This story is sometimes told with even more remarkable aspects. There's a version in which after studying and releasing it, he realized that he needed to study the hind legs a bit more, but the grasshopper was long gone. But then a second grasshopper hopped in and on to his Gemara, giving him the ability to study its hind legs in detail. 

And then there are the sequels, in which people who discount the story themselves experience the same thing, in some cases even being punished by a plague of grasshoppers in their home. Rabbi Josh Waxman has an excellent discussion of the problematic messaging that people shouldn't be skeptical about miracle stories. (The story is printed in a certain sefer, about which Reb Yankel Galinsky is said to have quipped "I would say I don't believe it, but I am scared a plague of that sefer will occupy my house.")

But meanwhile, this week someone released a video in which he asked Rav Chaim if the basic story is true - and Rav Chaim confirms it! It's presented as an incredible confirmation of a miracle. Now, some people will say that the video shows a very, very old man who is not necessarily actually remembering what happened or even describing it in detail. But personally I have no problem believing it. And I'll tell you why.

Many years ago I was giving a Shabbos morning presentation about animals of the Torah at the enormous Boca Raton Synagogue. One of the examples that I like to discuss is the verse in Mishlei: "The gecko grasps with its hands, and is in king's palaces." It's about how geckos have an amazing ability to climb up  walls (which is accomplished through their incredible toe structure that uses molecular forces) and can thereby survive even in palaces, which have a cleaning staff that is dedicated to getting rid of such things. And lo and behold, I noticed that high up in the palatial shul, there was a gecko on the wall!

Here's another one. While I was finishing writing The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom, I was stuck with a problem. The verses about lions attacking all speak about a solitary male lion lying in ambush. But, as everyone knows, that's not how lion attacks happen. It's the lionesses which do the hunting, in groups of lionesses which chase down their prey in a coordinated attack. I was sitting in front of my computer, struggling with this, and eventually decided to take a break and switch to reading the science news. Lo and behold, there was a story about a new study which revealed that it's only in the African savanna that lions hunt in such a way, whereas in dense forests (such as used to exist in Israel) it's the males that hunt via ambush!

Here's a third. Right now we are accumulating a collection of biblical and artistic model Noah's Arks for a new exhibit at the Biblical Museum of Natural History. One part of the exhibit is about arks from around the world which show local wildlife of that region, such as the African ark pictured here (revealing how people relate to the animal kingdom in terms of the local animals with which they are familiar). Yesterday, our director of PR announced to an interested party that the collection includes an ark from Australia with Australian fauna. I winced, because despite enormous effort, we had not been able to find such a thing. But lo and behold, just a few minutes ago as I started writing this post, I received a message from a friend in Australia with a picture of just such an ark that they had come across!

And so, if people are claiming that the grasshopper story is evidence of Rav Chaim's unique supernatural status, that's fine with me. Because it also means that I have unique supernatural status! Joking aside, I think it's clear that even if the grasshopper story is true, it is not especially significant. It could be simply a coincidence, or a fortuitous providential event that can happen even to someone like me.

But there is something in the video about Rav Chaim and the grasshopper which shows the true nature of his greatness.  

The average rabbi, even the average very very learned rabbi, will tell you point-blank that Ashkenazim can't eat locusts. After all, the Mishnah cites R. Yosi that a tradition is required as to which type may be eaten. The Yemenites and Moroccans have such a tradition to eat the migratory and desert locust (pictured here at the museum), but the Ashkenaz tradition is that we don't know which are kosher and therefore you absolutely cannot eat them. And there were authorities such as the Ohr HaChaim who spoke very harshly against it, which makes people especially nervous.

But Rav Chaim says otherwise. In the video, he says that it's a matter of dispute. And what he means is that there's a legitimate position that there is no Ashkenazi tradition of not eating locusts; rather, Ashkenazim simply weren't familiar with locusts, which don't live in that part of the world. As with the model Noah's Arks, people are generally only familiar with animals from their part of the world. According to this view, it's perfectly legitimate to accept the tradition from those who do have it, just as a community lacking a tradition regarding the kashrut of a certain bird is perfectly entitled to accept the tradition from a community that does have it.

In Rav Chaim's extensive monograph on this topic he has a remarkable insight which gives a further reason to permit locusts. Even according to the view that R. Yosi requires there to be a tradition, it is not described as a tradition that a particular type is kosher, and it is also not referring to a tradition that it has a specific Hebrew name. Rather, it is referring to a tradition that this insect falls into the general category that is named chagav (which includes the four types mentioned in the Torah, explained by Chazal to include four further types), based on its overall appearance. 

What does this mean? It means that the required tradition is just that this creature is in the general category of locust, rather than being a cricket or one of the many unusual varieties of grasshopper. Which is the case with the grasshoppers that are eaten by Yemenites and Moroccans.

This is the greatness of Rav Chaim. Not an embellished and insignificant story about a grasshopper entering his home. But rather, his incredible mastery of Torah, and his honest approach to it. How many people who are not directors of Biblical Museums of Natural History have studied so much of Torah that they have even covered this arcane zoological topic in detail and have rich insights into it? And how many people are honest and brave enough to describe the halachic situation as it really is, instead of according to the highly conservative frum way?

Meanwhile, you can see live examples of both species of kosher locusts at The Biblical Museum of Natural History, along with sundry exhibits such as our Locust-o-matic machine for preparing them for consumption. And if you're comfortable following the view that locusts are kosher, you can buy them at our gift store or purchase them online from our website. Actually, they make a great conversation piece for the Seder table, even if you don't eat them! (If you are a museum patron, you will be receiving a complimentary jar of locusts in the mail next week.) You can also read more about their kosher status on our Knowledge Base at this link

And here's something incredible. This video of Rav Chaim surfaced this week - and the laws of kosher locusts are mentioned in this week's parasha!

It's a miracle.


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Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Snappers On A Plane

Yesterday, a man arriving at Ben Gurion airport was discovered to have all kinds of exotic reptiles hidden in his luggage. Aside from pythons and blue-tongued skinks, he also had several baby alligator snapping turtles. These can reach a weight of two hundred pounds and are lethal predators!
 
Such animals are not suitable for home ownership, and if they escape or are released into the wild can cause damage to the ecosystem. While these particular reptiles were returned to the country of origin, this is not always possible. The Nature and Parks Authority has brought several such confiscated creatures to the museum in the past, including a snapper turtle, where they are housed safely and will never be released into the wild.

Invasive species are a problem. The most commonly seen bird in Israel (aside perhaps from the pigeon) is the mynah - which is from India. The next most commonly seen bird is the raucous ringneck parakeet, also from India. These birds escaped from pet stores and became established in the wild in Israel, displacing native species.

While the animal world of the Bible is the animal life of Biblical lands, unfortunately it is not the animal life of Israel today. Many Biblical animals have disappeared from the region, including hippos, lions, and bears. But many foreign animals are now common. And removing invasive species is generally impossible. 

Some animal-loving immigrants to Israel get frustrated that they can't buy the pets that they were able to buy in the UK and US. But there are good reasons for it. Israel is a small and delicate ecosystem, and the Nature & Parks Authority has the difficult task of preserving it as best as possible. 

Alas, the Biblical animal landscape will never return. But you can see what it used to look like by visiting the Biblical Museum of Natural History! We are already taking bookings for Pesach tours (which are bound to sell out!)


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Monday, March 21, 2022

A Leadership Vacuum?

There has been much talk about whether the passing of Rav Chaim Kanievsky ztz"l creates a leadership vacuum in the charedi world. In my view, it does not, but I do not mean this in the way that you might think I mean it.

There are many different types of rabbis. There are Talmudists. There are Poskim (halachic decisors). There are theologians. There are synagogue rabbis. There are teachers in schools and yeshivos. There are Roshei Yeshivah. There are heads of institutions. There are scholars. There are community activists. And this is far from a full list.

Rav Chaim Kanievsky was a Torah scholar par excellence. He was incredibly, totally, utterly dedicated to learning Torah. He also answered questions that were asked of him, and wrote many works of Torah scholarship. But he was not a Rosh Yeshiva or Rosh Kollel and very rarely gave shiurim. And he never held any formal position of responsibility or power or authority. Nor did he travel or make any attempt to learn about the goings-on in society, and the opportunities and challenges that exist. He was a supremely modest, private, secluded person.

There are people claiming that Rav Chaim was a strong leader. And there are those criticizing him for being a bad leader, during Covid. But they are all mistaken. Rav Chaim wasn't a strong leader or a weak leader. He wasn't a good leader or a bad leader. He just wasn't a leader at all. That is simply not the role that he either wanted or played. He was the Torah scholar - and one of the greatest.

Why, then, are so many people describing him as a leader? The answer is threefold.

First is that charedi society has innovated a concept of Daas Torah whereby definitive guidance for all issues is best given by people who are completely isolated from the world. Accordingly, leadership (in the sense of direction) is taken even from those who are not actually leaders by any other measure. 

The second reason is that he was wielded as an authority by others. As described in the previous post, Three Funerals in Bnei Brak, there were people who realized that precisely because he was not a leader, they could freely manipulate the concept of Reb Chaim for money and power. They could pronounce something as Daas Torah in Reb Chaim's name, and nobody would dare to disagree.

The third reason that people describe him as a leader is that there wasn't really anyone else competing for the title. 

And so the passing of Rav Chaim did not create a leadership vacuum in the charedi world. It had already existed before he passed away.

* * *

Since the reactions to the previous post were very mixed, I'd like to share a message that I received:

I know you've taken some heat for your recent article about Rav Chaim's passing. The truth is, I'm mostly familiar with the second version of Rav Chaim, the chassidic rebbe version, and that version of Rav Chaim means very little to me. However, even when I hear about the first version of the great Torah scholar and tzaddik, it's usually coming from those who also, to at least some extent, promote version 2, so I don't give too much weight to their words. The fact is, coming from you, I take the words to heart, and I feel like your post really helped me appreciate and respect the great loss of Rav Chaim version 1. So I guess what I'm trying to say is that far from being disrespectful or cynical, I found your post to be inspiring and to elevate Rav Chaim's life and legacy in my eyes by providing what I believe to be an honest overview of his true greatness in Torah and his humility and simple lifestyle, without adding dubious claims about his greatness in other areas, which, to my knowledge, he never claimed for himself.

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Saturday, March 19, 2022

Three Funerals in Bnei Brak

There will be three funerals taking place in Bnei Brak tomorrow.

One will be for the tragic passing of an extraordinary Torah scholar, Rav Shmaryahu Yosef Chaim Kanievsky. Born in Poland in 1928, he was a living legend, a relic from a previous era. He moved to Israel as a child and never left, not even briefly. Some may be surprised to learn that he served in the IDF during the War of Independence.

It is no exaggeration to say that Rav Chaim possessed mastery over virtually every aspect of Torah, albeit strictly from a Lithuanian-charedi-mystical perspective. He studied and gained expertise in every Torah topic from Levites to locusts. And he gained this expertise not merely through brilliance but also through raw hasmadah. Since he was a child, he was renowned for his dedication to his studies, learning for around seventeen hours daily!

Rav Chaim was also an extraordinary individual on a personal level. He lived a life of utter simplicity from his tiny apartment in Bnei Brak. He was completely uninterested in luxuries or even comforts. And his modesty extended beyond material simplicity to personal humility. Unlike many people revered as experts or sages or geniuses, he was ready to say "I don't know" when presented with a question that he couldn't answer.

Despite Rav Chaim's widespread renown, he had absolutely no interest in fame or glory or power or control. He was never the head of any institution or the rabbi of any community and was not any kind of leader. Rav Chaim's life was solely about learning Torah and answering questions that were asked of him. He was completely isolated from the world; it was said by those close to him that he probably didn't even know who the prime minister of Israel was. When it came to issuing rulings regarding practical matters, he simply trusted whatever information was given to him and ruled accordingly, for better or for worse. He was selflessly dedicated to answering questions from people, patiently writing out untold thousands of responses to the letters that poured in over the decades (though unfortunately much of his invaluable time was wasted by other people on meaningless trivialities). His loss is irreplaceable.

But there is also another funeral taking place in Bnei Brak tomorrow. This one is for a sort of chassidic rebbe known as "Reb Chaim." This rebbe was believed to have extraordinary supernatural insight. People thought that despite (or because of) his utter dedication to Torah and complete isolation from the world, he possessed special insight into the world. They would ask him for his opinion on all kinds of things that there was no natural way for him to know anything about, even medical matters of life and death. And they would regard even a vague response of "bracha v'hatzlacha" as containing actual approval or even direction.

This chassidic rebbe was believed to not only have supernatural insight, but even supernatural abilities. He was able to produce coins and wine and honey with magical powers, and whatever he had used was said to possess supernatural powers; such items were available, for a price. And his blessing upon anything was believed to be of immense potency and was regarded as being of tremendous value.

The loss of such a supernaturally-powered rebbe is even worse than the loss of a great Torah scholar, especially for weak-minded people who need such a magical authority figure in their lives. As one person wrote: "We tried to follow his guidance, from how to dress, what we eat, who to vote for, and how to raise our children. During these most challenging times the world has been facing - war, disease, strife, and increasing economic challenges, he has been guiding us." But alas, such a mythical figure didn't even exist to begin with.

There is also a third funeral taking place in Bnei Brak tomorrow. This is being attended by a small but powerful group of people: those who were involved in transforming Rav Chaim the Torah scholar into Reb Chaim the magical chassidic rebbe. They are mourning the loss of their source of money and power and influence. They are also undoubtedly even now figuring out how to maximize the money and power that they can still milk from him (and perhaps also eyeing which elderly reclusive Torah scholar they can next appropriate for their purposes).

Baruch Dayan Ha'Emes. And may we merit a nation which understands how to properly treat its Torah scholars.

 

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Thursday, March 17, 2022

Purim Perks & Peculiarities

1. When I was sixteen, I constructed an eight-foot tall Big Bird costume for Purim. Thirty years later, my sixteen-year-old son assembled a 3D printer and constructed an Iron Man costume, which he also motorized and lit up with LEDs. What's his sixteen-year-old son going to do in thirty years?! Build a space rocket?!

2. I saw a car which pulled over to the (wrong) side of the street. The kid in the back swung open the door, and it knocked off the wing mirror of a car that was driving past. Horrified, the kid's father jumped out and ran over to the other car to apologize. The guy gets out of the car, gives the man (who was a complete stranger to him) a mishloach manos, and says "Happy Purim!"

3. My car was stopped by a bunch of American yeshiva guys... who were collecting not for their yeshiva, but for Lemaan Achai, an incredible local charity. Kol hakavod! (Later, when I told one charedi guy who was collecting for his yeshiva that I save my money for matanos l'evyonim, he said to me, "What, supporting Torah isn't matanos l'evyonim?!" I don't know who was more mystified, he or I.)

4. A local antivaxxer had an effigy hanging outside of his house... of Bill Gates. I kid you not.

5. A Ukranian woman that we know (a recent convert) told my wife that she wasn't planning on observing Purim, because she is too distraught. My wife pointed out to her that it is davka important to observe Purim at such times. The reason why the Jewish People survived for thousands of years is that during the good times we remembered the suffering, and during the bad times we remembered the times of salvation.

I hope that you all had a great Purim!

 

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Tuesday, March 15, 2022

How To Meet God

I am reposting this post after having hastily taken it down. I read it - and reread it - and stand by every word I wrote.

I want to add that the individual who is the subject of the post is actively involved in encouraging behavior which is likely illegal and definitely dangerous. Publicizing this is justified from a legal perspective and imperative from a moral perspective.

 

Rabbi Doniel Katz is a popular lecturer and spiritual guru with a large following. He is sufficiently mainstream in the frum world that he was profiled in Mishpacha magazine a few years ago, for his innovative work in spiritually elevating people. And he has taught at several large educational institutions in Jerusalem for baalei teshuva.

I mentioned Rabbi Katz in this forum a few months ago, regarding his insistence on the truth of claims that were not only false, but obviously false. But in this post, I'd like to discuss a video that someone sent me of an interview/ presentation of his from a few weeks ago, regarding his specialty field of spirituality.

After a half-hour introduction, Rabbi Katz says he has a story that he claims he doesn't like to tell publicly, and isn't the most powerful spiritual experience of his life, and he suffers by telling it over, but he says that will briefly outline it anyway. As a young man in Melbourne, after having started to learn about Judaism, he went to bed one night, and his soul was "taken up to a higher world" where he "spoke directly to an angel."

Wow!

He tells this as an introduction to the value of encountering the Divine. And by this he means really encountering the Divine, not just reaching some sort of spiritual euphoria.

And how does one do that?

Why, with psychedelic drugs, of course!

I kid you not. For the next two hours he speaks about the benefits and safety of taking psychedelic drugs, both for curing problems such as depression, and also in order to reach a higher state of consciousness which will actually enable you to meet Hashem. Rabbi Katz claims that all the top scientists have confirmed that these drugs are effective and perfectly safe. They are not yet legal for purchase, but he notes that it is possible to purchase them illegally.

Rabbi Katz explains at length why such drugs are so valuable. What if you have someone in your family that's struggling with trauma, he says? Would you send them to the best therapy, that would take a year? "What if I told you," he says, "that in three weeks they could have a shift and transformation, using plant-based medicine that Hashem made that is scientifically approved and backed... If I can give healing now using a tonic that Hashem brought into the world, which we can trust, and many tzadikim talked about plants having these powers... that induce healing through awareness of Hashem, that strengthens emunah... why wouldn't we give that to our loved ones?"

But, someone listening to the presentation asks, when you take these drugs, are you really communicating with God, or are you just imagining it? Rabbi Katz says that even imagining it would be valuable and healthy, but insists that in most cases a person really is communicating with God. When another listener confesses that he's afraid to take drugs, Rabbi Katz explains that there's no need to be afraid of meeting Hashem.

And it's not just Hashem that you get to encounter. Just under an hour into the lecture, he tells the story of a family who lost their son. The broken parents were given psychedelic drugs, which enabled them, he says, to speak with the neshama of their son. Not that they believed that they were speaking with the neshama of their son - they really were speaking with, and hearing from, the neshama of their son. Which person who has tragically lost a loved one, if they are convinced that there is a way to really communicate with the deceased, will not jump at the opportunity?

When a questioner challenges why Rabbi Katz is recommending psychedelic drugs for people who are not suffering from mental illness, he claims that he isn't. But this is disingenuous. He's stressed that they are completely safe and enable a person to encounter incredible encounters with the Divine that are a crucial part of Judaism! He's given every reason to take them, and not a single reason not to take them!

I discussed his video with several psychiatrists, psychologists, and physicians. They said that psychedelic drugs do indeed have potent therapeutic qualities. However, they stressed that Rabbi Katz's presentation of their benefits and safety is false and grossly irresponsible. Contrary to his claims, there are considerable dangers involved. The plant-based psychedelic drugs that he mentions, such as ayahuasca, can result in all kinds of harmful side effects, including respiratory arrest, psychosis and hallucinations, and even death. The symptoms may occur for months or even years after using the drug. And, needless to say, the belief that one has communicated with loved ones or angels or God does not mean that one actually has done so - and it is a belief that can be dangerous. And the people who are most likely to take such drugs are those who are desperate and vulnerable, and the results can be horrible.

I was wary about being harsh on Rabbi Katz, since he may well be suffering from deep trauma, or some other problem, himself. But he is dangerous to the public. His teachings should be denounced, especially by those rabbis and institutions from which Rabbi Katz derives authority. 

Now, I know what you're probably thinking. You're surmising that Rabbi Doniel Katz is the rabbi that I discussed in the previous post, whose claims on Facebook about being targeted for unique supernatural harm led various commentators here to suggest that he is either suffering from a psychiatric condition or is a manipulative narcissist. But that wouldn't make sense. 

Why? Because the rabbi discussed in the previous post said that he has spent the last three years lying in bed, hardly able to move, whereas Rabbi Katz gives a two-and-a-half-hour live presentation at 4am looking perfectly well. Furthermore, the rabbi discussed in the previous post insisted that every time he drags himself up to give an occasional class online, at the second he's about to start, "right on cue, all the technology goes down" - whereas in Rabbi Katz's live presentation, there are absolutely no technical glitches. In addition, the rabbi discussed yesterday warned that people enabling him to give presentations suffer terrible and sometimes lethal harm, whereas Rabbi Katz does not warn the host of the show that he is in terrible danger. 

So how could Rabbi Katz be the same person as the rabbi in the previous post? He would have to be lying about all those things. 

Or hallucinating them.

Monday, March 14, 2022

The Making Of A Legend

I am reposting this post after having hastily taken it down. I read it - and reread it - and stand by every word I wrote.

I want to add that the individual who is the subject of the post is actively involved in encouraging behavior which is likely illegal and definitely dangerous. Publicizing this is justified from a legal perspective and imperative from a moral perspective.


 

There is a certain young rabbi, a very popular and successful educator and a very nice person, who used to teach at Neve Yerushalayim women's college. He has successfully inspired many hundreds, even thousands, of people. His style is very different from those that resonate with me - he is very much of the mystical/ kabbalah/ New Age persuasion, and he describes himself as a "mystic, psychonaut, and spiritual guide." Still, different strokes for different folks.

Recently, this rabbi wrote a public post on Facebook revealing that, tragically, he has been very sick for the last three years. This has rendered him unable to work. To make matters worse, his illness is undiagnosable: 

"The truth is I’ve been lying in bed, hardly able to move, for 2 years, 11 months, and 1 week, with a mysterious chronic illness that no one can diagnose. Yes, this is why I’ve stopped touring, teaching public classes, and have mostly disappeared from social media. We’ve tried every kind of healing approach — from mainstream medicine, alternative, psychological, energy healing, psychedelics, shamanism (kosher) and yes, every kind of Kabbalistic clearing and tikkun multiple times."

Obviously the readership here is very skeptical of most of these healing methods, and of people who seek them out. Still, to each his own. But then there is a curious additional piece of information:

"Not only has nothing worked, but every time something has started helping, my body seems to strangely develop an intolerance to it or another symptom in its place. Over and over again."

What kind of condition causes new symptoms to arise once existing symptoms are cured? I have my thoughts on that. But let's continue:

"Yes, I practice what I preach, I absolutely subscribe to the belief that so many physical ailments are in truth generated from emotional/psycho-spiritual roots. Thus I’ve used every resource and modality available and done every kind of process of humbling myself, turning myself inside out and clearing "trauma", pain and other middos ra'os to degrees I never imagined possible. While I can't tell you I'm now a tzaddik, my wife and closest friends all claim I'm a briah chadasheh compared to who I was three years ago. But still the challenges continue and intensify."

I think he's correct that many physical ailments are in truth generated from emotional/psycho-spiritual roots. Though I think that curing such ailments may require a different type of emotional/ psycho-spiritual path of growth than the one he describes. But he then proceeds to describe his condition as being something very, very different from either a physiological ailment or an emotional/psycho-spiritual one:

"What’s more, every time I drag myself up to give an occasional class online, at the second I’m about to start, right on cue, all the technology goes down — the camera literally breaks on the spot, or the internet goes down, or all the electricity goes out in the house, or strange noises come through the mics. And insanely, all at the same time. This has happened countless times in multiple locations. It's happened so many times that even the tech teams are astonished and bewildered."

Now, being a person of a rationalist persuasion, and not having any independent testimony from tech teams, I am of course extremely skeptical of this. I would see it as people reading too much significance into random occurrences. But one thing that I think we can all agree on is that if it is true, it would be of momentous significance. Extraordinary supernatural occurrences do not happen to regular people! And the supernatural effects in this case even flummox and harm those who are experts at the supernatural:

"What’s more, countless healers, despite having promised they can help me, end after numerous sessions saying they are struggling and confused and have never seen anything like this. Multiple healers and shaman types attempting to heal or cleanse me reported getting attacked or hurt somehow as they did so, and at least two said they became sick for months from working on me. One even just disappeared and refused to tell me what happened for fear of being attacked again."

Next comes an even more shocking revelation:

"Over the same few years, during major events or on certain days when major opportunities were about to come together or be announced for the project — always on the exact day — shocking events occurred to myself, my family or my team, including miscarriages, people falling down stairs, random donors losing funds and pulling out, and much worse things I can’t even bring myself to say. All on the same day. Multiple times each year. I'm not kidding. Even the rabbis and teams around us were shocked to witness and could offer no explanation. One wealthy brother, a friend and donor, went to quit his business after a lifetime of building his wealth, in order to run and scale my project. Right as he prepared to make the shift, the SEC without notice swept in and seized all his wealth, including his house. Just weeks later, in the midst of all that, just as he took on the position with us, he was diagnosed with cancer.  A year later, he passed away."

Again, I know that most people here would either disbelieve these claims or say that their significance is being exaggerated, but for the purposes of this post (which will soon be revealed), I ask that you just accept them as true and consider their significance. Lives are being lost, and even worse things that he can't bring himself to tell us (I can't imagine what those could be), as the result of the supernatural targeting of this rabbi.

"These are not even the worst of what I've just experienced. Some I can't even begin to publicly explain. Shabbos was the reason I became frum and the most spiritually powerful day for me. For the last three years, almost every Shabbos, for no conceivable reason, I become so comatose and barely conscious during the day that I can’t move or speak at all, and I lay in bed in a semi-delusional state. My wife is horrified but we don't know what to do. It literally passes right at the end of Shabbos — every single week. I was at wits end with this 2 years ago, but here I am still in it today."

I can actually think of reasons why he would only be affected on Shabbos. But still, accepting the rest of his claims would mean that people around him are in mortal danger. Fortunately, he reassures us that not everyone needs to be afraid:

"Boruch Hashem, my family and 1000's of students around the world continue to thrive unaffected."

So this physical or supernatural lethal ailment, whatever it is, is not contagious. It doesn't affect the people who share a home with him, or whom he teaches. It only affects him, and people who try to assist his work.

"But we can't help but notice that for every major event, viral post or personal breakthrough I facilitate, I get smashed back into bed or face an immediate calamity for seemingly unknown reasons. The week I got back from the Morocco retreat, the most impactful event we’d ever done, this illness started, and I basically haven’t gotten out since. Tonight we tried to start a new online class for thirty new people. Right when I hit the camera ON button — the lights went out in the whole house. Class was cancelled. Only half an hour later the electrician came and was able to turn the power back on. He left bewildered, with no explanation of what happened to cause that. In general, every single day I'm still completely physically dysfunctional, with every possible direction of hishtadlus exhausted. Yes, we’ve spoken to every known rav, tzaddik and mekubal, and besides repeatedly saying it's the result of some ayin hara and menios from the impact we're making, none of them have been able to help."

Every known rav and tzaddik and mekubal has been asked to try to solve this supernatural targeting of this rabbi and his team. Nobody can help. And so the rabbi concludes his post with an explanation of why he is writing all this: 

"This is all true. There are more insane things but I can't bring myself to say them. For all the obvious reasons, I’ve never shared this publicly before. But there’s a reason I’m posting today. Posting this is not shtick. I'm embarrassed to do this beyond words. It’s an act of sheer desperation. I don’t need your donations. I don’t need your prayers. I need your consciousness. Your awareness. I need you to witness this. Darkness can’t continue to function in consciousness. This kind of darkness can only exist in hiddenness, but it can't survive in public glare, because it would reveal its power. All my closest family, friends, students and rabbis have known about this but that hasn’t been enough. But now I’m calling it out. I’m asking you to be my witness."

He doesn't want people to davven for him. He wants people to "witness" what's going on, i.e. to be aware of it. Because such supernatural targeting of someone for harm can only endure as long at it is a secret. If lots of people know about it, it will have to stop. (I must confess that I have no idea what this is supposed to mean, nor how it has a basis in traditional Judaism.)

Now, this person is clearly in a lot of distress, for which we should have sympathy. And if you're suspecting that the nature of the affliction is something that could potentially be diagnosed by a psychiatrist (and indeed, a psychiatrist who read his post told me that he believes that the problem lies in this area), that still means that he deserves sympathy. But there's something else going on here that intensely bothers me and some others who read his post.

After writing a post like that, what does one expect one's followers to say?

If a person is experiencing an extraordinary supernatural effort to stop his mission, one that no Rav or tzaddik or mekubal in the world can help with, he is clearly extraordinarily special. Like, on a whole different level of existence, with a unique holy mission that the forces of darkness are desperate to prevent. Indeed, some of his followers draw exactly this conclusion:

"This can only happen to a leader, who is on the verge of tipping the world balance towards illumination and consciousness. It is time for everyone you have ever helped to collectively hold you in holy light."

"We stand as your witness. Clearly there is something super powerful you are trying to bring to the world and the Satan is doing everything he can to not let it enter this realm. You are a force like no other." 

"Now that your army has been mobilized, please tell us what the next move is, let us help spread the light."

"I am witnessing the birth of a Tzaddik and the darkness and light that goes with it. In your modesty, you may disagree, but I feel like you are morphing into a new kind of human and you're just way ahead of your time. It's hard for the old "wiring" of your physical and energetic body to hold the new vibrations so you blow a lot of circuits...."

Others suggest that this suffering tzaddik may be the Mashiach. And one woman leaves a particularly disturbing comment:

"I’ll just say what I tell all my friends: Rebbe Nachman says in Likkutei Moharan that a person loves their rebbe more than they love their own spouse. And (as usual for Rebbe Nachman) this is quite true. I know everyone here gets it."

(I reached out to this rabbi and told him how disturbing this comment was; he claimed to me that she was joking. But she showed no indication that she was joking, and when I asked her if she was joking, he blocked me.)

How should a person react to getting such comments? In a follow-up post, this rabbi says as follows: 

"I want you all to know that in the last 48 hours, in response to my most raw and intense of posts, I’ve received close to 1500 personal messages through Facebook, email, phone texts, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp."

This is, of course, unsurprising. He has many, many followers, and even though he only asked people to "witness," and said that he didn't want prayers (though he readily gave out his Hebrew name), naturally those who have benefited from his teachings want to reach out and praise him. Which, he says, he hates, hates, hates:

"I hate hate hate reading people saying nice things about me on social media, or in general. It feels egotistical, indulgent, and deeply uncomfortable, and I avoid it at all costs."

So this entirely predictable result of his previous post was something that he says he utterly hates. But he then says that even though he utterly hates doing it, he spent many hours reading every single comment out loud:

"Despite that, I want you all to know that I sat here for hours AND HOURS, together with my wife, personally reading every. single. one out loud. "

He proceeds to explain at length how reading all the responses helped him (and he clicked "Like" or "Love" on all of the comments that praised him). Although apparently exposing the darkness to light did not make it disappear, it did make him feel that he is on the path to healing. 

Now, I don't think that there's anything wrong in reading people's good wishes when you feel down. And I'm happy that his post helped him. Still, I am intensely bothered by all this (and I'm not the only one). And I'm not referring to the concern that anyone he hires to help with his education projects is risking illness and death.

I know this man has suffered terribly. I know that his post resulted in him starting to feel better. But, entirely aside from the non-rationalist aspects of his post, it reads like a manual for how to create a cult messianic figure. And there is no attempt to disillusion any of his followers from seeing him in this way, or to warn them about how in general to be wary of charismatic teachers making astounding claims about how special they are. Which is very dangerous indeed.

One (chassidic) rabbi that I discussed this person's post with said as follows: "I have had several people suggest to me that I might be Moshiach. It's a real thing that happens when you're a rabbi and you help people. Of course I immediately shot down the idea. But if you're someone who is susceptible to those kinds of delusions about yourself, and you have several people telling it to you, it becomes a feedback loop, and you can start to believe it."

I tried arguing these points with the rabbi who wrote the post, which got nowhere. The good thing I can report is that I heard that Neve has a new policy of not employing teachers who are overly charismatic and form cult followings. Halevay that this should be a general policy of yeshivos and seminaries. 

But it's not enough to avoid hiring such people. There needs to be an active effort to teach people about the potential dangers of charismatic teachers and those who overly revere them. History is replete with examples of the problems that can result.

(If you are commenting on this post, please bear in mind that the rabbi will probably read your comment, and write with appropriate sensitivity.)

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Thursday, March 10, 2022

I Am The Bat Man

(A re-post from over a decade ago)

Somebody sent me this link to a story from a community kollel about several invasions by bats into frum homes. According to the story, these invasions were both interpreted and solved via the bat's passuk in Perek Shirah: Perek Shirah explains why the bat appeared in the houses at that time, and reciting the bat's passuk from Perek Shirah assisted in finding the bat in order to remove it.

The irony is that the bat is not in Perek Shirah. The alleged "bat" in Perek Shirah, called retzifi in Hebrew, is not a bat.

Now, at this point some people will be saying, "Well, this is just Natan Slifkin's opinion. Others are of the view that the bat is in Perek Shirah!"

But this is where it gets really ironic.

The basis for people claiming that the bat is the retzifi of Perek Shirah, is the ArtScroll edition of Perek Shirah. And the ArtScroll Perek Shirah got it from me (as they acknowledge in a footnote). And I was completely mistaken about it!

When I found out that ArtScroll was working on Perek Shirah, and making use of my book Nature's Song, I wrote to them to inform them of a mistake that I had made in my book. My identification of the retzifi as the bat was a total stab in the dark. I claimed weak support from a commentary called Pi Eliyahu who identifies it as the tinshames, which in the Chumash is identified by some as the bat. But this is in fact no support at all, because Pi Eliyahu understands tinshames to be the owl. I only chose the bat because, faced with no evidence whatsoever (at the time) as to what the retzifi really is, I chose an animal that at least, with a generous dose of creativity, matches the theme of the passuk in Perek Shirah as explained by some of the commentaries. But there is no reason to think that the author of Perek Shirah was referring to the bat - and if he wanted to refer to the bat, he would surely have referred to it by the name atalef.

By the time I published the second edition of Nature's Song, in 2009, I had discovered that the retzifi is probably a type of dove, and corrected my book accordingly. But it was too late. ArtScroll had not taken note of my email to them admitting error, and had translated retzifi as the bat, crediting me in the footnote. And people at large, in the explosion of interest in Perek Shirah, had adopted the ArtScroll view. And, of course, nobody is going to admit to having based their mystical interpretation of an event on something said by Natan Slifkin - even if Natan Slifkin is admitting that he was mistaken!

Thus, an error that is destined to be perpetuated for all eternity, and used to "discover" the mystical significance of contemporary events involving bats, and even to have metaphysical results of enabling people to find the bat, all stems from a mistake on my part! I don't know whether to be amused or depressed.


Monday, March 7, 2022

Happy Daf Salamander Day!

Tomorrow, Daf Yomi reaches the topic of spontaneously generating salamanders! The Gemara says as follows:

Rabbi Avahu said in the name of Rabbi Eliezer: The fires of Gehinnom have no power over a Torah scholar; this is deduced a fortiori from a salamander. If a salamander, which is [only] a product of fire, when a person smears himself with its blood, fire has no control over him, then a Torah scholar, whose entire body is fire, as it is written, “For are My words not as fire, says Hashem,” how much more so! (Talmud, Chagigah 27a)

The Gemara here makes two claims about this creature: that it is a "product of" fire (i.e. generated from it), and that its blood (or perhaps some other bodily fluid) has fireproof properties.

What is this salamander? For millennia, the word salamander in many languages has referred to the creature still known as salamander in English. The name carried through from Ancient Greek, through Latin, through Old French. It was discussed by Rishonim and Acharonim. Therefore, it would seem to the same creature.

The description given by the Gemara, while not scientifically correct, also supports the identification of the Gemara's salamander with the creature known today as a salamander - specifically, the fire salamander. Found in Europe and Israel, this amphibian has a spectacular fiery pattern of orangey-yellow on a black background. It often hides in logs, and when these logs are thrown on a fire, the salamander will emerge. There is also reliable reports of amphibians in this family exuding liquids from glands on their skin which froth into a foam and render them temporarily fireproof. (For more details, see my book Sacred Monsters.) Thus, we have a convergence of evidence that this is the same creature being described by the Gemara.

The Rishonim and Acharonim who discuss the salamander generally took it for granted that it was generated in fire, as the Gemara says, without seeing this as at all problematic. This is to be expected, since for most of history, spontaneous generation was a universally accepted belief. In fact, Rabbi Pinchas Eliyahu Hurwitz of Vilna (c. 1790) challenges those who deny spontaneous generation by pointing out that the Talmud attests to the existence of the salamander growing from fire rather than from parent salamanders.

(Chasam Sofer, followed by the Rogatchover Gaon, suggests that the salamander lives inside volcanoes, but sorcerers are able to bring this creature out from its home. They do this by creating an appropriate habitat for it by burning a fire in the same place for a length of time. The salamanders make their way to this fire, where they breed and can be harvested for their fireproof blood. Chasam Sofer's proposal avoids the problem of spontaneous generation, but his explanation is likewise contradicted by modern science.)

What do contemporary rabbis, who are aware of modern science, have to say about the salamander?

Rabbi J. David Bleich insists that spontaneous generation has not been scientifically disproven (!) but continues to insist that the Sages did not believe in it anyway: "Aggadic references to mice arising from dirt (Sanhedrin 91a) and salamanders from fire (Hagigah 27a) have no bearing on this discussion. Quite frequently, aggadic statements involving exaggeration and hyperbole are allegorical and intentionally inaccurate." 

The problem is that this cannot remotely be reconciled with the Gemara's statement about salamanders. It's not an exaggeration or hyperbole - it is a description of how this salamander lives and dies. There's nothing which indicates it to be allegorical or intentionally inaccurate. And it was certainly understood as a factual, accurate account by all the Rishonim and Acharonim. Moreover, R. Bleich fails to cite the following source from the Midrash Tanchuma:

There are creatures that thrive in fire, and not in air, such as the salamander. How so? When glassmakers heat the furnace for seven consecutive days and nights, out of the thick of the flames emerges a creature that resembles a mouse, which people call a salamander. If a person smears his hand with its blood, or any other of his limbs, fire has no power over that part of him, because a salamander is generated from fire. (Midrash Tanchuma, Vayeshev 3)
This is clearly a non-allegorical, non-hyperbolic description that is intended to be accurate. R. Bleich ignores this, presumably because it refutes his claims about Chazal's infallibility and about their not believing in spontaneous generation.

Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, despite publishing an 800-page allegedly authoritative book on Torah and science, simply doesn't mention salamanders. However, like Rabbi Bleich, he does insist that the Sages did not believe in spontaneous generation. Presumably, this is why he avoids discussing the case of the salamander, which would undermine his claim that any definitive statement by the Sages about the natural world must be correct.

For the rest of us, we can comfortably adopt the approach of all the Gaonim and Rishonim and Acharonim who followed in the footsteps of Chazal themselves. Chazal did not consider themselves to be infallible authorities about the natural world. And there is no need for us to consider themselves that way. There was a universal belief in antiquity that salamanders are generated from fire, and live within it, and Chazal likewise believed that and incorporated it into their theological worldview.

If you attend Daf Yomi shiur, please let us know how the maggid shiur addressed this topic.


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Saturday, March 5, 2022

The Bizarre Result

I must correct something that I wrote about Rabbi Meiselman's position. Rabbi Kornreich pointed out that Rabbi Meiselman does not, in fact, maintain that if Chazal based something on their understanding of Torah, then it must be infallible. He says that although it is overwhelmingly likely to be correct, since it is based on a deeper understanding of existence, it could still be mistaken. But - and this is the critical "but" - this is only where the Gemara itself gives some indication that there is uncertainty about it. If Chazal make a definitive statement, if they are sure that they are right, then they can't be wrong. "If they spoke definitively, it must be true."

This is how Rabbi Meiselman attempts to get around the problem of Chazal's belief that the sun goes behind the sky at night, according to the view of the Rishonim that it is to be interpreted as a dispute regarding astronomy rather than having an invented "deeper explanation." The fact the Chachmei Yisrael argued with the non-Jewish astronomers, and that Rebbi conceded to the non-Jews, is, he claims, evidence that they weren't sure about it - even though elsewhere they based this view on their understanding of pesukim. 

Of course, in my opinion, this is hopelessly contrived. "Chazal" is not a person - it is lots of people. Some of them were convinced of this position, others were not. Furthermore, why on earth would the fact of someone, or even a group of people, being certain of their own position mean that it would be inconceivable that they were wrong? There's just no rationale for it. If one person can be wrong, two people can be wrong, and if two people can be wrong, a hundred people can be wrong. Rabbi Meiselman claims (p. 123) that "just as definite conclusions in halachah carry the authority of Torah sheba'al Peh, so, too in matters of fact." But this makes absolutely no sense. Halacha is a legal system, and law can have legal authority. Statements about physical reality, on the other hand, do not have authority unless there is actual reason to be certain that they are true!

But there is something else even more bizarre going on here - the extraordinary way in which this approach plays out when you compare the sun's path at night to zoology.

According to Rabbi Meiselman, it is wrong and heretical to say that Chazal mistakenly believed that bats lay eggs, that elephants and wolves have a three-year gestation, that spontaneous generation takes place. Since Chazal expressed no uncertainty in their statements on these matters, they must be correct, even if that requires some novel and bizarre or entirely unknown way of reinterpreting what they are saying. They couldn't possibly have made a mistake about the natural world (even though such zoological mistakes were very common in antiquity).

It's incredible. When it comes to a physical phenomenon as enormous and significant as where the sun goes at night, with which Chazal, who (according to Rabbi Meiselman) were in touch with deep aspects of existence, believed they could find evidence from the Torah itself, they could nevertheless be completely wrong and fall in line with Babylonian cosmology instead of the more correct Greek cosmology. But when it comes to arcane matters of zoology, about which the Torah says nothing, they were infallible and it is absolutely forbidden to say otherwise! They didn't know where the sun goes at night, but they must have known about the birthing habits of bats!

It's not just that Rabbi Meiselman's approach is intellectually dishonest to an extreme, disrespectful of a major school of thought in rabbinic history, and anti-scientific. It also leads to the most absurd results.


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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...