Yated's New Low
Over the years, I've seen some pretty bad behavior in the name of frumkeit. But this one hit me so hard that my hands are literally shaking as I write this.
There's a letter in this week's US edition of the Yated Ne'eman, in the "Questions and Answers" column.
It's signed by Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin.
But I never wrote it!
A person at Yated fabricated a letter and put my name on it.
The guilty party at Yated is a (former) old friend of mine, who writes the "Questions and Answers" section, with the assistance of other rabbis. I've been discussing/ arguing with him over the last few weeks about the topic of paying someone to learn Torah and transferring the reward to the nominee of one's choice. So he decided to compose a letter to the Yated, purporting to present my position in a way that he deemed fit, and to sign my name to it!
Although he no doubt sincerely intended to present my position accurately, he did not actually do so. Most egregiously, he fabricated a statement from me accusing organizations that fundraise in this way of having a "lack of integrity" in going against the Rishonim. But I never said that going against the Rishonim displays a lack of integrity. My argument was that according to traditional Judaism, such a merit-transfer mechanism just doesn't work.
I was stunned that this person thought that it was ethically acceptable to fabricate a letter in my name, assuming that I would want to have a letter printed and creating the content for it. I wrote a furious email to him, and he replied that he does it all the time and doesn't see anything halachically wrong with it!
What makes it especially ironic is that several months ago, when this rabbi reported a position of Rav Zalman Nechemiah Goldberg ztz"l that seemed rather unethical, with regard to a son being told to disregard his father's dying wish, I wrote a post in which I suggested that perhaps this rabbi had "processed" Rav Zalman Nechemiah's words (or the question that was posed to him) in a way that did not accurately reflect the truth. The rabbi was very upset by this accusation, and insisted that he reported Rav Zalman Nechemiah's position accurately. Well, now that I have first-hand experience with this rabbi misrepresenting my own position and fabricating words in my name, I see that there is no reason to consider him at all reliable, both in how he reports the questions that he receives to the Rabbonim, and in how he presents their responses.
If you're thinking, "Well, he's clearly a bad person," then you're mistaken. He is a really, really nice, sweet, sincere, temimusdikke person, who has the best of intentions, and who even wants to get the charedi world to respect me (he may have wanted to show that I am "kosher" by having my name printed in the Yated, complete with honorific). But he's a product of a sector of Orthodox society in which there is a severe lack of professionalism. This is coupled with a serious deficiency in intellectual honesty (defined as "honesty in the acquisition, analysis, and transmission of ideas"), along with a problem of arrogance regarding the Truth and value of one's own interpretation of one's cause. That's why Dr. Marc Shapiro was able to compile an entire book full of examples of rabbis censoring and misrepresenting the positions of rabbis from earlier generations that they claim to respect. And that's how they see no problem in telling a person, whose dying father had asked him to donate from his estate to conservation and not to a kollel, to instead give it to a kollel.
With regard to the response that the rabbi gives to "my question," in the names of Rav Azriel Auerbach and Rav Goldberg, it is deeply problematic. The response notes that the Rokeach says that such a merit-transfer works, on the (very difficult) grounds that Hashem knows that if the deceased were still alive, he would have given the charity. And they proceed to say that this "is the accepted halacha... Once the Shulchan Aruch and the Rama, the two amudei hora'ah, have ruled, then you can pile up Rishonim from here to the moon and it is of absolutely no consequence. The accepted halacha determines the belief and practice of Klal Yisroel, and therefore the deceased most definitely receive reward for tzedakah given in their name."
It's rather bizarre that the notion of Judaism being based on broad ancient traditions is so casually thrown out of the window. But there's another fundamental problem here. What on earth does "halacha" have to do with this? This isn't a halachic matter! The question of whether one can transfer the reward for a mitzvah to somebody else is one of metaphysical reality, not legal practice! You can't pasken whether the world is flat or spherical, you can't pasken where the sun goes at night, you can't pasken whether or not demons exist, you can't pasken how Hashem decides to run His relationships, and you can't pasken whether or not reward for mitzvos is something that is potentially transferable!
Furthermore, the Rokeach, difficult as his position is, does not even go remotely as far as they are taking him. He is justifying the ancient custom to give charity on behalf of the dead for Yom Kippur, which he relates to the concept of atonement. But, as several authorities point out, charity is only being mentioned here as being pledged on Yom Kippur (Rokeach explicitly says that it is not done on Chag, and Rama states that it relates to the particular status of Yom Kippur), as a way to save a person from punishment, not as a way to actively provide reward to someone in the next world. Furthermore, it is specifically charity that is mentioned, not any other mitzvah such as learning Torah; it's the exception that proves the rule. (And note that the Rokeach says that it helps "ketzas", which the translation given in the Yated somewhat inaccurately renders as it "does provide some benefit.")
The Rokeach/ Shulchan Aruch/ Rama do not say that you give charity at any time and transfer the reward to anyone you choose. And they do not say that you can give money to a yeshivah and transfer the merit for that Torah study to the person of your choice. And in any case, the actual truth of what happens is an independent metaphysical reality, not something that can be "paskened"!
I'd love to write to Yated to point this out. But I won't. Because I'm not interested in writing any letter to a publication that sees nothing wrong in fabricating letters that they attribute to people. (And the irony is that the actual letters that I really did write to the Yated over the years were not printed!)
(My study of this topic can be downloaded at http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2014/02/what-can-one-do-for-someone-who-has.html, and is being printed in an expanded version in my forthcoming book Rationalism vs. Mysticism. If you'd like to subscribe to this blog via email, use the form on the right of the page, or send me an email and I will add you. )