In Defense of a Condemnation
A group of distinguished Rabbonim write a letter of condemnation against the teachings of a maverick rabbi who claims to be doing outreach. Sounds like a summary of the great Torah/Science controversy of 2004/5. But it happened again today, when 16 rabbonim signed a letter of condemnation against Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi. Due to certain superficial similarities with my case, I have decided to discuss the differences. (Full disclosure: several of the signatories are beloved colleagues/ friends/ mentors, and one of them was my shadchan!)
Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi attained notoriety a while back for his claim that only one million of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust were actually halachically Jewish. Aside from being nonsense, this claim was also extraordinarily hurtful and even dangerous. After a flood of condemnation, Rabbi Mizrachi apologized (though his apology contained several inaccuracies). However, he has presented a number of other deeply flawed and/or severely offensive statements and attitudes, in particular about Holocaust victims and people suffering from cancer or other misfortunes. Furthermore, when people have criticized these statements, he has responded with appalling viciousness, comparing his critics to Hitler and hinting that his followers might physically attack them. He's also very uneducated; he believes that stage magicians are actually performing real magic! As longtime readers of my website know, I am not in the habit of criticizing problematic Torah education approaches (there would be too much to do!) unless they are directly harmful to people, but that is unfortunately certainly the case here.
Following is the text of the letter that was released:
As rabbonim and mechanchim, we are greatly concerned about the popularity in some circles of a “kiruv” approach that does not bring honor to the Torah ha-Kedoshah but, on the contrary, creates considerable chilul Hashem.
Earlier this year, Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi apologized for one particularly offensive statement he made on several occasions. But he has voiced, both before and since that apology, many things that reduce complex issues to simplistic and misleading sound bites. He has also repeatedly arrogated to “know” why unfortunate things happen to various people and has presented subtle statements of Chazal in superficial and deceptive ways.
That method may entertain and even stimulate some audiences, but it does no justice to the Jewish mesorah. And, especially with the worldwide audience enjoyed by any public speech these days, misleading assertions even when offered with the best of intentions, are particularly objectionable, and even dangerous.
Jewish institutions must be discerning about the credentials and the histories of those to whom they offer the honor of acting as teachers of Torah. We urge all shuls and organizations to act responsibly and take seriously decisions about whom they invite to address their gatherings.
HaRav Gedalia Dov Schwartz – Rosh Beit Din, Beis Din of America and Chicago Rabbinical Council
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein – Editor, Cross-Currents
Rabbi Shalom Baum – President, Rabbinical Council of America
Rabbi Yosef Benarroch – Rosh Midrasha, Midreshet Eshel Mara D’atra, Adas Yeshurun Herzliya Synagogue, Winnipeg, Canada
Rabbi Moises Benzaquen – Mara D’atra, West Coast Torah Center, Rosh Hayeshiva, Harkham Gaon Academy Los Angeles, CA
HaRav Mayer Alter Horowitz – Bostoner Rebbe of Yerushalayim
Rabbi Joseph Dweck – Senior Rabbi of the Spanish and Portuguese Sephardi Community of the United Kingdom
Rabbi Daniel Feldman – Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary
Rabbi Ilan D. Feldman – Mara D’asra, Congregation Beth Jacob Atlanta, GA
Rabbi Efrem Goldberg – Mara D’asra, Boca Raton Synagogue Boca Raton, FL
Rabbi Micah Greenland – International Director, NCSY
HaRav Michel Twerski -Mara D’asra, Congregation Beth Jehudah, Milwaukee, WI
Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky – Rosh Yeshiva, Darche Noam Jerusalem, Israel
Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin – Mara D’asra, Congregation Beth Avraham Joseph (BAYT) Toronto, Canada
Rabbi Avi Shafran – Media Liaison, Agudath Israel of America
Rabbi Yitzchak Shurin – Rosh Midrasha, Midreshet Rachel V’Chaya
At first glance, this seems very similar to the ban against my own books, so how can I defend the above letter? The truth is that I actually don't have a problem with the Gedolim condemning genuinely heretical works as heretical, or in their issuing a social policy against works that go against the educational approach that they desire for their communities. My problem is with their confusing the two!
There are several important differences between this letter and the letter of condemnation that was issued against my own teaching. First is that the signatories of this letter are actually familiar with Rabbi Mizrachi's teachings, unlike the signatories of the ban on my books, many of whom didn't even read English and who were relying on unreliable zealots. Second is that the signatories of this letter are actually genuinely knowledgeable about different approaches to these topics, unlike the signatories of the ban on my books, who didn't know science and (more importantly) weren't aware of the history of the rationalist approach. Third, the letter against my books was an attempt to impose authority (it was a ban), whereas this letter is a voice of critique, not an attempt to impose authority.
Now, I would like to address some of the counter-claims that have been made in Rabbi Mizrachi's defense. One person argued that "The great rabbis of Rambam's generation burned his books, too! So you see that he's right." Many people voiced a similar defense of my own works, and I never liked it. To quote Carl Sagan: "The fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.” Yes, they burned Rambam's books. But they also burned Spinoza's books. Having your books burned is no guarantee that they are legitimate!
Another argument being voiced is "How can you condemn Rabbi Mizrachi for saying that the Sassoon children died for their sins in a previous incarnation? That is a traditional Jewish approach!" There are two responses to be made to this. First is that gilgul neshamos is certainly not universally accepted. But second, and more importantly, it is irrelevant that rabbinic authorities have spoken in the abstract about such things; to state this about the Sassoon children and other tragedies is appallingly insensitive and hurtful.
The most common defense of Rabbi Mizrachi being claimed is that "Rabbi Mizrachi is successfully mekarev many people!" Many people likewise voiced this defense for my own works, and I didn't like that much, either. It was somewhat valid, in light of the fact that a significant aspect of the ban on my own books was not that they were heretical per se, but rather that they were dangerous and were leading people away from Judaism. With regard to this aspect, it was relevant to point out that my books were more helpful than damaging, and that the reports of my books being harmful were coming from frauds like Rabbi Leib Tropper. However, if an approach is genuinely wrong, then it doesn't matter how many people it is mekarev. And the signatories against Rabbi Mizrachi do not deny that his approach "may stimulate some audiences." They are saying that it is nevertheless wrong - either innately false, deeply offensive, dangerous, or all of the above.
It is wrong to say that Downs Syndrome children and those with autism are being punished for their sins in a previous life. It is wrong to say that due to not being correctly religious, secular Jewish women acted without concern for their modesty at the gas chambers during the Holocaust. It is wrong to say that IDFsoldiers who are mechallel Shabbat have no share in the world to come. It is wrong to say that children who are born with blindness are being punished for watching pornography in previous lives. It is wrong to say that people contract cancer as a result of sexual licentiousness and "dirty thoughts." Etcetera, etcetera; see this link for a long list.
In any case, the claims about Rabbi Mizrachi being mekerav many people are wildly over-inflated. Furthermore, one would have to consider how many people he has distanced from Judaism with his foolish and hurtful teachings. But the main point is that it's not a matter of numbers. Being mekarev people is not license to distort Judaism and to be offensive.
If there were any doubts about Rabbi Mizrachi's poor character, these were removed by his response to the letter. In an interview with Vos Iz Neias, he says as follows:
“I don’t know who these rabbis are,” said Rabbi Mizrachi. “It’s very interesting. It is like someone who makes $10 an hour giving advice to Bill Gates on how make money. I make more than 10,000 baalei teshuva a year. These rabbis never make one baal teshuva and they want to teach me how to make baalei teshuva? It is absurd.”
First of all, his claim that he makes ten thousand baalei teshuva a year (!), aside from being appallingly arrogant (and who ever claims to "make" people frum?!) is patent nonsense. It's so absurd that it reveals that it's not just that he doesn't care about truth; he doesn't even care that he doesn't care about truth!
Second, he has completely failed to understand the letter. As noted earlier, it's not about how many people you are being mekarev. It's about whether what you are teaching is appropriate.
But what really takes the cake is his claim that the 16 signatories have never "made" any baalei teshuvah?! Hello??!! Does he have the slightest idea who he is talking about?! The list is like a Who's Who of success stories in the kiruv world!
Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi demonstrates foolishness, dishonesty, arrogance, and nastiness. Unfortunately, he seems to inculcate these traits in some of his followers, who respond with extreme aggression to any criticisms of him. There's nothing that can be done about them. But perhaps he can be prevented from recruiting more people to his brand of Judaism.