When People Lose Their Minds
In the past I have sometimes found that my posts are misinterpreted. This post is extremely vulnerable to being misinterpreted. Please read it carefully and do not misinterpret it!
This morning I was a little shaken to see my name appear in a horrific news story about an attempted murder. Even worse, it was in a quote from a comment by the would-be murderer on this very blog.
The breaking story, reported by multiple news outlets, is about the arrest of Matthew Karelefsky on one count of arson and two of attempted murder. Last week, Karelefsky set fire to the house and car of Rabbi Yonasan Max from Yeshivas Chaim Berlin. The fire spread to destroy three homes. Thirteen people were hospitalized, including a baby. Karelefsky made no attempt to hide his role in this, and was pictured today grinning during his arraignment.
Who is Matthew Karelefsky? He used to be called Menachem Karelefsky, before he converted to Christianity. Karelefsky issued allegations about Rabbi Max having abused him, but he admitted to someone that these were fabricated. The underlying source of his grudge is unclear. I spoke today with someone who knows him, and they said that it relates to his divorce. Karelefsky is clearly a deeply disturbed individual, and he needs to be locked up, whether in prison or in an asylum.
But aside from his homicidal actions, there are other issues going on with him. One news site quoted the following comment which Karelefsky wrote on this blog back in January:
“I will say this…One of the MAIN reasons why I started exploring the option to leave Judaism is bec ( at first) Chaim Berlin forced my children to go to secular studies… … And now I am the BIGGEST ORTHODOX JEW HATER …And , if my kids weren’t forced to go to secular studies , I would still be frum and love Jewish people…PS, I ALSO ( even then) was a big fan of Rabbi Slifkin and the ban on Rabbi Sklifkin is one of the BIGGEST reasons why I left Judaism.”
This comment was reposted on this blog yesterday, with the preface: "A Comment from the Brooklyn arsonist."
The first part of the comment is very odd. Why would the yeshiva forcing his children to have secular studies cause him to leave Judaism? It makes no sense.
The second part of his comment, on the other hand, about his leaving Judaism because of the ban on my books, is all too resonant.
Many readers here will recall the turbulent times of 2004/2005. When the ban on my books came out, there was widespread distress. This wasn't like the ban on Making Of A Godol, which was directed against only one person. This was an assault on every religious Jew who accepted modern science. As Jonathan Rosenblum put it: "I woke up one day to discover that my rebbe of thirty years rated me as a heretic."
For decades, while there were differences regarding precisely how to reconcile clashes between Torah and science, the common denominator was that the exercise itself was legitimate. You didn't have to reject something as basic as the dinosaur era in order to be accepted as a good Jew. Now, all of a sudden, the community was being told that if you believe that the universe is millions of years old, "dust in your mouths!" And if you challenged that position, you were an even worse heretic, for going against the all-wise Gedolim.
The consequences for many people were cataclysmic. I have a binder full of letters from people who were enraged, confused, devastated. I've lost count of the number of people who have told me that they left the charedi community as a result, and I know of a few that left religion altogether. Personally, I was at a relatively early stage in life, and it was relatively easy to change affiliations and join the Torah u'Madda community. But for those who were more embedded in the charedi community, it was not so easy. In one particularly traumatic case that I know of, a marriage was almost torn apart, as the husband was put in a state of despair by the ban and tore down the posters, while the zealous friends of his wife urged her to divorce her husband for defying Daas Torah. People underwent existential crises.
Unless you've experienced it, you can't imagine what it feels like to be totally delegitimized. You don't know what it's like to have spent years studying Torah, having developed a deep sense of respect for rabbinic authority, a passionate religious commitment, and then to be told - by the embodiment of rabbinic authority, no less - that you're a bad, disrespectful, failure of a Jew. Rav Chaim Shmulevitz writes about how Amalek's hatred for the Jewish People stemmed from his originally being rejected. When you delegitimize someone, there's no telling what effect that will have on them.
Searching my email just now, I found a single letter that I received from Menachem Karelefsky, back in 2003 - a year before the ban:
Dear Rabbi Slifkin,
My name is Menachem Karelefsky. I am a rebbi in Yeshiva Chaim Berlin in Brooklyn. This summer I am going to be a rebbi for second grade boys in a bungalow colony. I was very inspired by your book "Nature's Song" and I would like to teach Perek Shira. May I please have your permission to copy some pictures or paragraphs from your book to use in my worksheets ?
Thank you very much,
A totally normal email, from a totally normal-sounding person. He was not the only person in Chaim Berlin who had reached out to me. I had also been corresponding with someone else, in the kollel. That person had been deeply troubled by various Torah-science issues, and had reached out to me for guidance. He didn't feel comfortable reaching out to the Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Aaron Shechter. And with good reason - after the ban on my books, Rav Shechter gave a fire-and-brimstone speech in which he screamed against me for attempting to reconcile Genesis with modern science. Little did he realize that in his very own yeshivah, there were people who were undergoing crises of faith and who relied on my books for their emotional well-being. Can you imagine how they felt when their Rosh Yeshivah gave such a speech?
I must emphasize again that this does not remotely account for Karelefsky's behavior. I don't even know if his leaving Judaism actually had anything to do with the ban - the fact of his claiming it did does not necessarily mean that it actually was connected. And even total delegitimization does not lead one to try to murder somebody! In any case, as noted above, Karelefsky's grudge against Rabbi Max was related to personal issues, and he clearly suffers from severe mental problems.
Still, all this should give people pause to reflect upon the effect that the ban had on people. It was an act with enormous repercussions. And how much thought and research went into it? The signatories didn't know anything about modern science, they were not familiar with the rabbinic sources that I based my approach on, they didn't meet with either myself or the rabbis who had endorsed my books, they didn't do any research as to the likely consequences of their actions.
As someone's uncle once said, "With great power, comes great responsibility." The problem with charedi society is that its leaders wield tremendous power with very little responsibility.
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