Sunday, March 27, 2022

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. 

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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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32 comments:

  1. Was his study lhagdil tora or would ashkenazim be able to eat certain grasshoppers even without a mesora? (shades of the zebu affair?)
    KT

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  2. Your conclusion is not a necessary one. Summoning the grasshopper for Rav Chaim could be the method of Sod Hashem Liyreyav in this particular case.

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  3. The Ramban is quite open that he realized his ideas about the size of a shekel were wrong once he saw an actual shekel. And that's just part of it.

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    1. Question for Nachum: Source, please. Thanks!

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    2. It's one of the things he added to his perush after he made aliyah. (As I said, there are a number of examples where he changed his mind once he saw physical facts. The location of Kever Rachel is another. But the size of a shekel has real halakhic implications.) In some editions it's placed at the end of Sefer Devarim, and in some it's incorporated into the beginning of Parshat Ki Tisa. Artscroll has it as an appendix- illustrated!- at the end of Sefer Shemot.

      ברכני השם עד כה שזכיתי ובאתי לעכה ומצאתי שם ביד זקני הארץ מטבע כסף מפותח פתוחי חותם, מצדו האחד כעין מקל שקד ומצדו השני כעין צלוחית, ובשני הצדדים סביב כתב מפותח באר היטב. והראו הכתב לכותיים וקראוהו מיד, כי הוא כתב עברי אשר נשאר לכותיים כמו שמוזכר בסנהדרין, וקראו מן הצד האחד שקל השקלים, ומן הצד השני ירושלים הקדושה. ואומרים כי הצורות מקלו של אהרן שקדיה ופרחיה, והצורה השני צנצנת המן. ושקלנו אותה בשלחנות ומשקלה עשרה כסף אסטרלינש, והם חצי האוקיא שהזכירה רבינו שלמה. וכן ראיתי מן המטבע ההוא בצורות ההן ובכתיבה ההיא חצי משקלה, והוא חצי השקל שהיו שוקלים לקרבנות. והנה נסתייעו דברי רבינו שלמה סיוע גדול, כי כפי דברי רבינו הגדול והגאונים הפרוטה חצי חכ"ה והדינר חכ"ה, והם אמרו שהם צ"ו שעורות, והרי הוא הדינר שקורין בעכו ביזאנד שארדינט שכך הוא שיעורו בכיוון, והוא הוא הששדינג שהזכירו הגאונים שהלעוזות בלעגי שפתם אומרים כן, וכך קורין לבזנאד דינר צורי, וכך כותבין בכתובות שלהן דינרי צורי, כי בצור הקרובה לעכו היו מטביעין אותן. ומשקל הדינר הזה שלושה איסטטלינש, נמצא הסלע י"ב איסטליניש לפי דבריהם, ואינן אלא עשרה כדברי רש"י. ולמדנו שהגוים הללו הוסיפו עליהן שתות, אולי החתיכות הקטנות הנשקלות בבוזאנד הם תוספת, וגופו בעצמו עשרים גרעיני חרוב.

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    3. In the Kook/Chavel edition it's after V'zos Hab'racha.

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  4. What a silly post. Of course chareidim would say the grasshopper is a manifestation of sod Hashem l'yreiyav.

    The only real issue that's brought up in this post is, how could Rabbi Slifkin make such a silly mistake? He could've, y'know, just asked any random chareidi on the street. Asked about the grasshopper. But clearly he didn't even do that.

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    1. Happy,

      You’re absolutely right. The grasshopper tale is definitely a manifestation of Sod Hashem L’yreyav. On the other hand to skeptics it is not. Whose belief will you recognize as true? Beliefs are like bellybuttons — everybody has one. What your religion and beliefs have in common with all others is that they’re all unfalsifiable. So go ahead and believe what you want, Your bellybutton is as inconsequential as your religious beliefs. How am I to disprove it?

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    2. Why would R' Chaim need to be shown a physical grasshopper (however miraculously) to examine when, according to the current chareidi conception of "da'as torah", he should have been able to derive any knowledge he needed about it from his prodigious Torah study?

      The obvious other side of that question is, of course: if even g'dolei torah need empirical knowledge of their subject (like R' Chaim's careful study of the grasshopper) in order to render decisions, then how can they be considered qualified to make decisions regarding subjects about which they have no empirical knowledge?

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    3. Just Curious, your question reveals extreme ignorance about the opinions of chareidim, yet you feel qualified to render judgement on them on all sorts of matters, without bothering to do the least bit of empirical research, not even asking their opinions. You are much, much, much worse than chareidim who ask medical questions to Gedolim.

      But to answer your question, the entire premise is false. Studying a grasshopper for the purpose of Torah is Torah. Chareidim believe that Gedolim have Ruach Hakodesh, but don't choose exactly how it manifests. A grasshopper is just as good as Gilui Eliyahu for this purpose.

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    4. My making judgments about chareidism is “much, much, much worse” than asking potentially life-or-death questions of elderly Talmud scholars likely unqualified to answer them competently?

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    5. Again, more ignorance. In most cases, people asking medical questions to Gedolim have already dealt with the doctors. Sometimes there is a dispute among doctors. Sometimes the doctor recommends surgery but warn that's it's very risky. In such cases there's no medical recourse. Asking a Gadol is at least as good as flipping a coin. Rare is the person who goes to a Gadol as a first resort.

      You, on the other hand, don't do even the most basic research on the people you pass judgement on, not even bothering to ask them. You come here and make heavy-handed statements about hundreds of thousands of Jews without knowing the least bit about them, except for the extremely distorted information/slander that this blog feeds you. There is no comparison to chareidim who ask Gedolim after having exhausted all options. You are much, much, much worse.

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    6. If studying grasshoppers for the purpose of Torah is Torah, is studying secular subjects? If not, why not?

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    7. bigbartha, yes, of course. I don't know if you would make Birchas HaTorah on it, however. I would think not.

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    8. See here
      http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2012/01/is-talmudic-science-rated-as-torah.html

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    9. Anon, it is a good question, but he mangles the question in an exceedingly foolish way, for obvious personal reasons. The question is NOT "When Chazal discuss their views on matters relating to the physical world, which have now been rendered obsolete, is this still considered to be Torah?". The question is, when Chazal discussed ANY matters relating to the physical world, whether obsolete or not, is it considered Torah? Is their medical advice Torah? Is their business advice Torah? As is typical for that author, whenever he manages to bring up a good point, he corrupts it with his counter-Torah poison.

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    10. @Happy, "The question is, when Chazal discussed ANY matters relating to the physical world, whether obsolete or not, is it considered Torah? Is their medical advice Torah?"

      Correct. In that link with the *comments* you'll find references to RMS, RCK z"l(and possibly lhbcl"c RHS) who address that question, if indirectly.

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  5. For someone reason the author of this blog believes he is qualified to remark on ANY topic even without being asked. Doesn't each individual have the right to ask their questions to anyone they want to receive guidance from?

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    1. To be sure, in a free society, anyone is free to remark upon any topic he chooses and to seek guidance from whomever he chooses.

      The problem arises when a society is not free and its members are effectively forced (whether by social pressure, isolation, lack of education, etc) to rely upon the supposedly divine—and therefore unquestionable—authority of no one other than elderly Talmud scholars (and their handlers).

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  6. It doesn't seem like this is anything new - the gemara talks about how Rav went to apprentice a shepherd in order to learn about the anatomy of the sheep. If someone wants to claim that a great rabbi does not need to know the מציאות, they will have to face questions from the gemara and rishonim, not only from the great RCK.

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  7. Rav Nosson, you are so biased from the trauma of the charedi ban on your books from 18 years ago. So sad to still see what an angry young man you remain. And how do you explain the hundreds and hundreds of stories where Rav Chaim indeed gave successful advice on medicine? I too don't want to accept them, my being a rationalist but at a certain point it's just too many to deny

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    1. If the “Gedolim” didn’t excoriate Rav Slifkin for his evidence that the age of the earth is much greater than 6000 years, we might never have learned how ignorant Daas Torah had become.
      Rav Slifkin did all critical-thinking Jews a great favor by identifying the sham of Daas Torah.

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    2. Perhaps R’ Chaim’s advice in all those hundreds of successful cases was: “follow your doctor’s instructions”…

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    3. @JC, probably in many or most cases. But often enough it was "don't listen."

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  8. Amazing coincidences happen all the time, to anyone who has eyes to see. Some of the more amazing ones reflect the high spiritual standing of the person they happen to. Others are like Divine "winks" from G-d telling us: "I'm here, running the universe."

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  9. **********************March 27, 2022 at 9:26 PM

    No it doesn't.

    Had the locust not flown in, the knowledge would have come supernaturaly. But as we know, Hashem always prefers works b'derech hatevah.

    That is the same reason yeshivos move from areas targeted by rockets. They need to do their hishtadlus. To avoid Hashem having to make nissim. However, when there is a regular army in any event, torah learning acts as an essential top up and as a further level of protection without a nes being apparent.

    So those two oft-quoted kashyos are nothing but the sort.

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    1. ***************** 9:26PM

      “...But as we know, Hashem always prefers works b'derech hatevah....”

      Is that what he prefers? And that means that at times he spurns Derech Hatevah and chooses miracles outside of the natural order of things to accomplish his goals. Manna from Heaven and death of all the Egyptian first born comes to mind. Indeed, your assumption that it was Hashem’s doing to educate Rav CK about locusts is wrong. It was just a coincidence. Prove me wrong.

      Who is “we”? I’m not in that arena of certitude. You seem to have the uncanny ability to know how Hashem decides things.



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  10. You’re right, Jenny, this is indeed nothing new to those of us who believe in and practice a form of Orthodox Judaism (some might call it “rationalist Judaism”…) in which halachic decisors (let alone “g’dolim”) are expected to have worldly knowledge and experience to complement their Torah learning (some might call it “torah im derech eretz”…).

    You are further correct that there is ample evidence in the classical sources (Talmud, rishonim, etc) to demonstrate that this is the way Judaism was traditionally practiced and rabbinic authority exercised. But, somehow, there is a segment of Orthodox Judaism that has chosen to ignore these textual and historical facts and innovate a new form of Judaism in which supernatural “gnosis” and near-monastic retreat from the world are paradoxically regarded as ideals.

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  11. where can i learn more about what it means to be a rationalist jew? does this mean that there is only things and events that are confined to the known rules of common nature and no possibly of anything ever have superseded the rules of common nature?

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  12. RHS always says - 'you have to look at the chicken!'

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  13. Thanks for the anecdote about the storks (and the ones in the previous article).

    I have always believed that God works miracles (at least today) through events that doubters will consider coincidence. I've also experienced many "coincidences" in my life that seem far too meaningful to be chalked up to random chance.

    Rambam has said that God works miracles though nature, not in violation of it. Which is why we can find geological evidence for things like the 10 plagues and the destruction of Sodom and many other things. The miracle isn't that the events happened, but that they happened in specifically the time and place where they were needed.

    Combining this with something I learned a long time ago (sorry I can't remember the source) about how God still speaks to people today, but only on a personal level (nation-wide prophecies having ended thousands of years ago), it makes perfect sense how we will sometimes hear or see something significant, like your gecko on the wall.

    Events that are coincidence for the world at large, but prophetically significant for the one or two people to whom they are directed.

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