Friday, October 30, 2009

Mysteries of the Other World: Golems, Demons and Similar Beings in Jewish Thought & History

A recent article begins:

While some Jewish families see Halloween as a pagan holiday that should not be observed, the fact is, Jewish tradition is itself no stranger to the otherworldly, with its own history of golem-makers, sorcerers, and demon wranglers, and throughout the centuries Jews have been as afraid of evil spirits as anyone else

Indeed, for those interested in some of the discussions regarding demon wranglers and golem makers, see Dr. Leiman's post on "Did a Disciple of the Maharal Create a Golem?" and the post "Ghosts, Demons, Golems, and their Halachik Status." As well as Dr. Leiman's comments regarding a story that appeared in De'ah ve-Dibbur regarding the Maharal and his alleged golem and this post.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Review: Minhagei Lita

Minhagei Lita, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Poliakoff, Baltimore: 2008, 116 pp.

The author's stated purpose is to "clarify for present generation the authentic customs of Lithuanian Jewry in prayer and in common Jewish practice" and highlight the Torah true approach and values that form the underpinnings" of those customs.  Minhagei Lita at 3.  Aside from the difficulty in determining what the author means by "common Jewish practice," "Torah true approach" this book, unfortunately, has little value. This book, which is really a screed, suffers from numerous problems, which we will highlight below. This book has so many flaws that I was not even going to review it, but it seems to have garnered some media attention and thus we have decided to review the book.
The author apparently spent eight years in Telshe Yeshiva in Lithuania, between 1930-38. It does not appear, according the brief biography at the end of the book, that the author went anywhere other than Telshe.  See id. at 101-02.  He makes no mention of visiting more established and larger Lithuanian cities of Vilna, Kovno, or Mintz for example.  Indeed, in his introduction, he provides that he is "not so presumptuous and foolish to claim knowledge of all or even most of the area of Lithuanian avodah."  Id. at 4.  But, throughout the book, the author fails to remember this disclaimer.   Instead, for example, the author asserts that "the minhag in Lithuania was to beat the Aravos," id. at 48, or that the neither "in the Telshe Yeshivah or anywhere else in Lithuania," id. at 50, did they repeat to the two readings of the zekher.  How the author knew that these customs were uniform throughout Lithuania is unclear.
This is not the only piece of his own advice the author ignores. The author records a conversation where another Lithuanian Jew bemoans the current state of Judaisim and particular its failure "to walk humbly with G[o]d?" Id. at 61 Poliakoff agrees this sentiment but a few pages later states about himself, without irony, that "I am much more of a scholar and more pious than many people in Baltimore who denigrate the eruv."  Id. at 74.  Additionally, Poliakoff decides that he can offer his own "novel" solution to solving the agunah problem and dispensing with the second day of Yom Tov. The idea that in one fell swoop he can deal with these weighty issues doesn't smack of humility. Moreover, in dealing with both of these issues, as well as others in the book, Poliakoff's lack of awareness of relevant sources is stunning. He seems to think that only with the very recent technological advances is the Yom Tov Sheni issue problematic.  Of course, since communication has been improving for hundreds of years, many, many people have raised and dealt with the issue of continuing to keep a second day for Yom Tov.  See, for example, J. Katz, Divine Law in Human Hands, Magnes Press: 1998, 255 ff.  Perhaps, as Poliakoff appears to still live in Baltimore, which to my knowledge, has no good Judaic library he had no access to these sources.  When it comes to agunah, his "novel" solution is annulment.  Of course, as anyone who has even the most basic familiarity with the history of the agunah issue knows that this approach has been raised on countless occasions.  For a recent comprehensive history, one just needs to read the comprehensive articles in Yeshurun on this topic (many of which are online at Hebrewbooks, and thus, mitigates Polikoff's unfortunate status as a Baltimorian). Maybe Polikoff will suggest in his next book that his has novel approach to Pesach where he wants to abandon the prohibition against kitnyot.
This is not the only example where a better library would have assisted him.  He asserts that "one of the new trends today is to pronounce the word for rain in the second brachah of the amidah - gashem. The traditional pronunciation has always been, geshem." Minhagei Lita, at 22. First, this is not a "new" trend, it was started in the early 1800s.  Second, there is much written on this topic that could have clued him in on this.  There are at least three books that are entirely devoted to this issue.  See, e.g., Hayyim Kraus's books, Mekhalkhel Hayyim, Jerusalem, 1981 and Ot Hayim, Beni Brak, 1984.  Polikoff also asserts that there that is only "recent" is pointing one's little finger at the torah during the hagbah ceremony.  His "proof" that is a custom that has no basis and is a new one is that he "asked a person whom [he] noticed performing this act why [the pointer] did it and from where he learnt it." The pointer "was unable to find a traditional source for it."  Just to be clear, Poliakoff, based upon one persons failure to elicit a source, proves his point.  Rabbi Hayyim Palagei in Lev Chaim, Orach Chaim (167:6) records this custom as does the Yalkut Me'am Lo'ez (Deut. 27:26) records this custom as well as others. I am not suggesting that these sources end the discussion, or if this is an appropriate custom, but merely that the notion that there are no traditional sources is wrong. 
Then, we get to, for lack of a better descriptor, the really silly things that Poliakoff says.  For example, he asserts that it is a "misconception" that a mourner should lead the prayers, instead a mourner is only supposed to say kaddish. Minhagei Lita at 32. As an initial matter, this is a highly questionable assertion, but let's assume he is correct.  Based upon this assumption, Poliakoff then goes on to complain that sometimes people have decided to take upon themselves to lead the services not for a dead relative that would render them an avel but a grandfather for example.  As they are doing this for hesed they should have priority over an actual avel in leading the prayers.  So, according to Poliakoff, if you are leading the prayers in memory of your great uncle Bob then you are somehow doing more hesed than if you are merely leading the prayers for one's father John who died two weeks ago.  Why if for Uncle Bob are you doing a hesed  are you not doing it for John? Or we have the especially silly comment since "more than fifty percent of marriages today contracted by the parties themselves end in divorce, we ought to consider whether we would not be better off if we required the consent of the parents to contract a marriage." Id. at 79.
Poliakoff, is quick to offer his own sociological take on why it is current customs and practices don't conform with his limited experience in Telshe Yeshiva in Lithuania.  According to him this was in part brought about by the rise of the ba'al teshuva movement. Id. at 55.  I assume the argument is that since ba'al teshuva don't have their own family customs, they relied too heavily on books, books like the Mishna Berurah, which, according to Poliakoff don't accurately represent the Lithuanian practice. But, did all ba'al teshuva become religious via the same experiance that Rambam attributes to Abraham? That is, was it based solely on their own introspection, did they not have teachers who were not ba'alei teshuva, teachers who presumably had their own traditions and customs that they could impart to their ba'alei teshuva students? Did these ba'ale teshuva take over all the yeshivas and shuls and institute their "new" non-traditional customs and force everyone else to follow them?  Of course, as Hayyim Soloveichik points out in his own article on this topic, people today may be too willing to rely upon books rather than tradition (ahh what a idyllic world we would have if we all only followed the advice of Fiddler on the Roof) but this suggestion of Poliakoff seems too much of a generalization. For his broader point that people have uncritically accepted certain customs, there is no doubt that he is correct.  The fault with his work, however, is that he provides little basis for this criticism other than his own displeasure.  To be sure, there are numerous books and articles discussing this phenomenon, indeed, one of his examples, the pronunciation of kaddish was discussed on this site here.  And had Poliakoff done even minimal research he could have located similar objections that would have bolstered his understanding of what minhagei lita was comprised of. 
In all, if one is looking for what the customs were in Telshe, Poliakoff provides some of that and is especially strong when he limits himself to that topic. But, as of late, Telshe as a Yeshiva has been dying a slow death, it is unclear what relevance that will have to most.  For a comprehensive work on minhagei lita, however, we will still have to wait for that.


Update:  I have learned that this book was never intended to be a presentation of minhagei Lita, Telshe, or any other customs.  Instead, the book was written for personal reasons and was not expected to generate such press.  Thus, according to representations I received, no halakhic or any other conclusions were to be drawn from this book.  The sole conclusion that is excepted is that it is "proper" to kill the messenger. 

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Some Assorted Comments and a Selection from my Memoir. part 1

Some Assorted Comments and a Selection from my Memoir, part 1

By:  Marc B. Shapiro

1. Fifty years ago R. Jehiel Jacob Weinberg spoke about the fraudulence that was found in the Orthodox world. Unfortunately, matters have gotten much worse since his time. I am not referring to the phony pesakim in the names of great rabbis that appear plastered all over Jerusalem, and from there to the internet. Often the damage has been done before the news comes out that the supposed pesak was not actually approved by the rav, but was instead put up by an “askan” or by a member of the rabbi’s “court”. I am also not referring to the fraudulent stories that routinely appear in the hagiographies published by Artscroll and the like, and were also a feature in the late Jewish Observer. These are pretty harmless, and it is hard to imagine anyone with sophistication being taken in. Finally, I am also not referring to the falsehoods that constantly appear in the Yated Neeman. I think everyone knows that this newspaper is full of lies and in its despicable fashion thinks nothing of attempting to destroy people’s reputations, all because their outlooks are not in accord with whatever Daas Torah Yated is pushing that week.[1]

I am referring to something much more pernicious, because the falsehoods are directed towards the intellectuals of the community, and are intended to mislead them. There was a time when in the haredi world a distinction was made between the masses, whom it was permitted to mislead with falsehoods, and the intellectuals who knew the truth and who were part of the “club” that didn’t have to bother with the censorship that is ubiquitous in haredi world.

Yet I have recently seen many examples that show that even in the world of the intellectuals, fraudulence has begun to surface. Let me note an example that was recently called to my attention by Rabbi Yitzchak Oratz, and it is most distressing precisely because it is a son who is responsible for the lie. In an issue of the popular journal Or Yisrael, R. Yehudah Heller from London mentioned that the late R. Yerucham Gorelik, a well-known student of R. Velvel of Brisk, had taught Talmud at Yeshiva University.[2] Heller used this example to show that one can teach Torah in an institution even if the students’ devotion to Torah study leaves something to be desired.

 In the latest issue of Or Yisrael (Tishrei, 5770), p. 255, Heller publishes a letter in which he corrects what he had earlier written. He was contacted by Gorelik’s son, R. Mordechai Leib Gorelik. The only thing I know about the younger Gorelik is that he appears to be quite extreme. He published an essay in Or Yisrael attacking the Artscroll Talmud and his reason was simply incredible. He claimed that anything that tries to make the study of Talmud easier is to be condemned. He also argued that Talmud study is not for the masses, but only for the elite. Obviously, the latter don’t need translations. According to Gorelik, if the masses want to study Torah, they can study halakhah or Aggadah and Mussar. If they want to study Talmud, then they must do it the way it used to be studied, with sweat, but they have no place in the beit midrash with their Artscroll crutches.[3]

Apparently it bothers Gorelik that his colleagues might think that his father actually taught Talmud at YU. So he told Heller the following, and this is what appears in Or Yisrael: R. Yerucham Gorelik never taught Talmud at YU, and on the contrary, he thought that there was a severe prohibition (issur hamur) in both studying and teaching Talmud at this institution, even on a temporary basis, and even in order “to save” the young people in attendance there. The only subject he ever taught at YU was “hashkafah”.

The Sages tell us that “people are not presumed to tell a lie which is likely to be found out” (Bekhorot 36b). I don’t think that they would have made this statement if they knew the era we currently live in.[4] Here you have a case where literally thousands of people can testify as to how R. Gorelik served as a Rosh Yeshiva at YU for forty years, where you can go back to the old issues of the YU newspapers, the yearbooks, Torah journals etc. and see the truth. Yet because of how this will look in certain extremist circles, especially with regard to people who are far removed from New York and are thus gullible in this matter, R. Gorelik’s son decides to create a fiction.

I understand that in his circle the younger Gorelik is embarrassed that his father taught Talmud at YU. I also assume that he found a good heter to lie in this case. After all, it is kavod ha-Torah and the honor of his father’s memory, because God forbid that it be known that R. Gorelik was a Rosh Yeshiva at YU. However, I would only ask, what happened to hakarat ha-tov? YU gave R. Gorelik the opportunity to teach Torah at a high level. It also offered him a parnasah. Without this he, like so many of his colleagues, would have been forced into the hashgachah business, and when this wasn’t enough, to schnorr for money, all in order to put food on the table..

This denial of any connection to YU is part of a larger pattern. In my last post I mentioned how R. Poleyeff’s association with the school was erased. Another example is how R. Soloveitchik appears on the title page of one sefer as “Av Beit Din of Boston.” And now R. Gorelik’s biography is outrageously distorted.[5] Yet in the end, it is distressing to realize that the rewriting of history might actually work. In fifty years, when there are no more eyewitnesses alive to testify to R. Gorelik’s shiurim, how many people will deny that he ever taught at YU? Any written record will be rejected as a YU-Haskalah forgery, or something that God miraculously created to test our faith, all in order to avoid the conclusion that an authentic Torah scholar taught at YU.[6] I have no doubt that the editor of Or Yisrael, coming from a world far removed from YU, is unaware of the facts and that is why he permitted this letter to appear. I am certain that he would not knowingly permit a blatant falsehood like this to sully his fine journal.

2. Since I spoke so much about R. Hayyim Soloveitchik in the last two posts, let me add the following: The anonymous Halikhot ha-Grah (Jerusalem, [1996]), p. 4, mentions the famous story recorded by R. Zevin, that in a difficult case of Agunah R. Hayyim asked R. Yitzhak Elhanan’s opinion, but all he wanted was a yes or no answer. As R. Zevin explained, quoting those who were close to R. Hayyim, if R. Yitzhak Elhanan gave his reasoning then R. Hayyim would certainly have found things with which he disagreed, but he knew that in terms of practical halakhah he could rely on R. Yitzhak Elhanan.[7] Halikhot ha-Grah rejects R. Zevin’s explanation. Yet the same story, and explanation, were repeated by R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik.[8] In addition, a similar story, this time involving R. Hayyim and R. Simcha Zelig, is found in Uvdot ve-Hangagot le-Veit Brisk, vol. 4, pp. 35-36. Thus, there is no reason to doubt what R. Zevin reports.[9] Mention of Halikhot ha-Grah would not be complete without noting that it takes a good deal of material, without acknowledgment and sometimes word for word, from R. Schachter’s Nefesh ha-Raf. Of course, this too is done in the name of kavod ha-Torah.

3. Many posts on this blog have discussed how we now have entire books on topics concerning which until recent years a few lines sufficed. Haym Soloveitchik also made this point in “Rupture and Reconstruction.” Here is another example, the book Birkat Eitan by R. Eitan Shoshan.

This is a 648 page (!) book devoted to the blessing Asher Yatzar, recited after going to the bathroom. Shoshan has an even larger book devoted to the Shema recited before going to sleep.

4. In a previous post[10] I mentioned that R. Moshe Bick’s brother was the Judaic scholar and communist Abraham Bick (Shauli). Before writing this I confirmed the information, but as we all know, oftentimes such “confirmations” are themselves incorrect. I thank R. Ezra Bick for providing me with the correct information, and the original post has been corrected.

R. Moshe and Abraham were actually somewhat distant cousins.[11] Abraham was the son of R. Shaul Bick (and hence the hebraicized last name, Shauli), who was the son of R. Yitzchak Bick, who was the chief rabbi of Providence, RI, in the early 1930’s. R. Yitzchak was the son of R. Simcha Bick, who was rav in Mohiliv, Podolia. R. Simcha Bick had a brother, R. Zvi Aryeh Bick, who was rav in Medzhibush. His son was R. Hayyim Yechiel Mikhel Bick, was also rav in Medzhibush (d. 1889). His son was also named Hayyim Yechiel Mikhel Bick (born a few months after his father's premature death), and he was rav in Medzhibush from 1910 until 1925, when he came to America. His son was R. Moshe Bick.

R. Ezra Bick also reports that after the Second World War, when Abraham Bick was in the U.S. working as an organizer for communist front organizations, he was more or less cut off by his Orthodox cousins in Brooklyn.

R. Moshe Bick’s brother, Yeshayah (R. Ezra’s father), was a well-known Mizrachi figure. In his obituary for R. Hayyim Yechiel Mikhel Bick, R. Meir Amsel, the editor of Ha-Maor, mentioned how Yeshayah caused his father much heartache with his Zionist activities.[12] This article greatly hurt R. Moshe Bick and he insisted that Amsel never again mention him or his family in Ha-Maor. In fact, as R. Ezra Bick has pointed out to me, rather than causing his father heartache, R. Hayyim Yechiel actually encouraged Yeshayah in his Zionist activities.

R. Bick’s letter is actually quite fascinating and I give the Amsel family a lot of credit for including it in a recent volume dedicated to R. Meir Amsel. I have never seen this sort of letter included in a memorial volume, as all the material in such works is supposed to honor the subject of the volume. Yet here is a letter that blasts Amsel, and they still included it.[13] They also included a letter from R. Jehiel Jacob Weinberg in which he too criticizes Amsel for allowing personal attacks to be published in his journal. It takes a lot of strength for children to publish such letters and they have earned my admiration for doing so.

When I first mentioned R. Moshe Bick, I also noted that he was opposed to young people getting married too quickly. He therefore urged that boys and girls go out on a number of dates before deciding to get engaged. Needless to say, the haredi world was furious at this advice. R. Dovid Solomon reported to me the following anecdote: When the Klausenberger Rebbe told R. Bick how opposed he was to the latter’s advice, R. Bick responded: “That’s because you are mesader kidushin at all the marriages. But I am the one who is mesader all the gittin!”
5. In previous postings I gave three examples of errors in R. Charles B. Chavel’s notes to his edition of Nahmanides’ writings. For each of these examples my points were challenged and Chavel was defended. Here is one more example that I don’t think anyone will dispute. In Kitvei ha-Ramban, vol. 1, p. 148, Nahmanides writes:

 ובזה אין אנו מודים לספר המדע שאמר שהבורא מנבא בני אדם.

In his note Chavel explains ספר המדע to mean:

לדבר הידוע, יעללינעק מגיה פה שצ"ל: לרב הידוע.

Yet the meaning is obvious that Nahmanides is referring to Maimonides’ Sefer ha-Mada, where he explains the nature of prophecy.[14]

5. In 2008 a Torah commentary from R. Judah Leib Diskin was published. Here is the title page.

The book even comes with a super-commentary of sorts. This is completely unnecessary but shows how greatly the editor/publisher values the work. Diskin is a legendary figure and was identified with the more extreme elements of the Jerusalem Ashkenazic community. For this reason he often did not see eye to eye with R. Samuel Salant.

Here is a page from this new commentary.

In his comment to Num. 23:22-23, Diskin quotes a book called Ha-Korem. This is a commentary on the Torah and some other books of the Bible by Naphtali Herz Homberg, a leading Maskil who worked for the Austrian government as superintendent of Jewish schools and censor of Jewish books. This is what the Encyclopedia Judaica says about him:

Homberg threatened the rabbis that if they did not adapt themselves to his principles the government would force them to do so. . . . Homberg was ruthless in denouncing to the authorities religious Jews who refused to comply with his requirements, and in applying pressure against them. In his official memoranda he blamed both the rabbis and the Talmud for preventing Jews from fulfilling their civic duties toward the Christian state. . . . Homberg recommended to the authorities that they disband most traditional educational institutions, prohibit use of the Hebrew language, and force the communal bodies to employ only modern teachers. . . In his book Homberg denied the belief in Israel as the chosen people, the Messiah, and the return to Zion, and tried to show the existence of an essential identity between Judaism and Christianity. . . . Homberg incurred the nearly universal hatred of his Jewish contemporaries.

Incredibly, it is from his commentary that Diskin quoted. The editor didn’t know what Ha-Korem was, but almost immediately after publication someone let him in on the secret. All copies in Israeli seforim stores were then recalled in order that the offending page be "corrected". I am told that the first printing is now impossible to find in Israel. When I was informed of this story by R. Moshe Tsuriel, I contacted Biegeleisen who fortunately had just received a shipment from Israel, sent out before the books were embargoed. Presumably, my copy will one day be a collector’s item.

The one positive thing to be said about Homberg is that he wrote a very good Haskalah Hebrew. I was therefore surprised when I saw the following in David Nimmer’s otherwise fantastic article in Hakirah 8 (2009): “We begin with Herz Homberg, a minor functionary who wrote in German since his Hebrew skills were poor” (p. 73). Since German was the last language Homberg learnt, I was curious as to how Nimmer was misled. He references Wilma Abeles Iggers, The Jews of Bohemia and Moravia (Detroit, 1992), p. 14. Yet Nimmer misunderstood this source. Iggers writes as follows, in speaking of the mid-eighteenth century: “Use of Hebrew steadily decreased, even in learned discussions. Naftali Herz Homberg, for example, asked his friend Moses Mendelssohn to correspond with him in German rather than in Hebrew.” All that this means is that Homberg wanted to practice his German, and become a “cultured” member of Mendelssohn’s circle, and that is why he wanted to correspond in this language. In this he is little different than so many others like him who arrived in Berlin knowing only Hebrew and Yiddish. Each one of them had a different story as to how they learnt German. According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, in 1767, when he was nineteen years old, Homberg “began to learn German secretly.”

6. In a previous post I noted the yeshiva joke that R. Menasheh Klein’s books should be called Meshaneh Halakhot, instead of Mishneh Halakhot. Strangely enough, if you google “meshaneh halakhot” you will find that the books are actually referred to this way by a few different people, including, in what are apparently Freudian slips, B. Barry Levy and Daniel Sperber. In fact, Klein’s books are not the first to be referred to in this sort of way. In his polemic against Maimonides, R. Meir Abulafia writes (Kitab al Rasail [Paris, 1871), p. 13):

הוא הספר הנקרא משנה תורה, ואיני יודע אם יש אם למסורת ואם יש אם למקרא.

Abulafia is mocking Maimonides’ greatest work, and wondering if perhaps it should be called Meshaneh Torah! As for Klein, there is a good deal that can be said about his prolific writings, and they await a comprehensive analysis. When thinking about Meshaneh Halakhot, I often recall following responsum, which appears in Mishneh Halakhot, vol. 5, no. 141, and which I am too embarrassed to translate.

A well-known talmid hakham pointed out to me something very interesting. Normally we understand hillul ha-shem to mean that a non-Jew will see how Jews behave and draw the wrong conclusions of what Torah teachings are all about. However, in this responsum we see the exact opposite. The hillul ha-shem is that the non-Jew will draw the right conclusion! Yet the truth is that this understanding of hillul ha-shem is also very popular and is used by R. Moses Isserles, as we will soon see..

Here is another responsum that will blow you off your seats, from Mishneh Halakhot, New Series, vol. 12, Hoshen Mishpat no. 445.

If you want to understand why three hasidic kids are sitting in a Japanese jail, this responsum provides all you need to know. Can anyone deny that it is this mentality that explains so much of the illegal activity we have seen in recent year? Will Agudat Israel, which has publicly called for adherence to high ethical standards in such matters, condemn Klein? Will they declare a ban on R Yaakov Yeshayah Blau’s popular Pithei Hoshen, which explains all the halakhically permissible ways one can cheat non-Jews? You can’t have it both ways. You can’t declare that members of your community strive for the ethical high ground while at the same time regard Mishneh Halakhot, Pithei Hoshen, and similar books as valid texts, since these works offer justifications for all sorts of unethical monetary behavior. The average Orthodox Jew has no idea what is found in these works and how dangerous they are. Do I need to start quoting chapter and verse of contemporary halakhic texts that state explicitly that there is no prohibition to cheat on one’s taxes?[15] Pray tell, Agudah, are we supposed to regard these authors as legitimate halakhic authorities?

I have no doubt that there was a time that the approach found here was acceptable. In an era when Jews were being terribly persecuted and their money was being taken, the non-Jewish world was regarded as the enemy, and rightfully so. Yet the fact that pesakim reflecting this mindset are published today is simply incredible. Also incredible is that R. David Zvi Hoffmann’s Der Schulchan-Aruch und die Rabbinen über das Verhältniss der Juden zu Andersgläubigen, a classic text designed to show that Jewish law does not discriminate monetarily against contemporary Gentiles, has not yet been translated. Hoffmann's approach was shared by all other poskim in Germany, who believed that any discriminatory laws were simply no longer applicable.[16] R. Jehiel Jacob Weinberg stated that we must formally declare that this is what we believe. Can Agudah in good conscience make such a declaration, and mean it?

The truth is that there is an interesting sociological divide on these matters between the Modern Orthodox and the haredi world. Here is an example that will illustrate this. If a Modern Orthodox rabbi would advocate the following halakhah, quoted by R. Moses Isserles, Hoshen Mishpat 348:2,[17] he would be fired.[18]

טעות עכו"ם כגון להטעותו בחשבון או להפקיע הלואתו מותר ובלבד שלא יודע לו דליכא חילול השם.

If I am wrong about this, please let me know, but I don’t believe that any Modern Orthodox synagogue in the country would keep a rabbi who publicly advocated this position.[19] Indeed, R. Moses Rivkes in his Be'er ha-Golah on this halakhah wants people to know that they shouldn’t follow this ruling.[20] See also Rivkes, Be'er ha-Golah, Hoshen Mishpat 266:1, 383:1, and his strong words in Hoshen Mishpat 388:12 where he states that the communal leaders would let the non-Jews know if any Jews were intent on cheating them. Today, people would call Rivkes a moser.

I believe that if people in the Modern Orthodox world were convinced that Rama's ruling is what Jewish ethics is about, very few of them would remain in Orthodoxy. In line with what Rivkes states, this halakhah has been rejected by Modern Orthodoxy and its sages, as have similar halakhot. As mentioned, Hoffmann’s Der Schulchan-Aruch is the most important work in this area. Yet today, most people will simply cite the Meiri who takes care of all of these issues, by distinguishing between the wicked Gentiles of old and the good Gentiles among whom we live. Thus, whoever feels that he is living in a tolerant environment can adopt the Meiri’s position and confidently assert that Rama is not referring to the contemporary world.

Yet what is the position of the American haredi world? If they accept Rama’s ruling, and don’t temper it with Meiri, then in what sense can the Agudah claim that they are educating their people to behave ethically in money matters? Would they claim that Rama’s halakhah satisfies what we mean by "ethical" in the year 2009? Will they say, as they do in so many other cases, that halakhah cannot be compared to the man-made laws of society and cannot be judged by humans? If that is their position, I can understand it, but then let Aish Hatorah and Ohr Sameach try explaining this to the potential baalei teshuvah and see how many people join the fold. If this is their position, then all the gatherings and talks about how one needs to follow dina de-malchuta are meaningless, for reasons I need not elaborate on. Furthermore, isn’t all the stress on following dina de-malchuta revealing? Why can’t people simply be told to do the right thing because it is the right thing? Why does it have to be anchored in halakhah, and especially in dina de-malchuta? Once this sort of thing becomes a requirement because of halakhah, instead of arising from basic ethics, then there are 101 loopholes that people can find, and all sorts of heterim as we saw in Klein’s responsum. I would even argue that the fact that one needs to point to a halakhic text to show that it is wrong to steal is itself a sign of our society’s moral bankruptcy.[21]

7. In Studies in Maimonides and His Interpreters I stated that Maimonides nowhere explicitly denies the existence of demons, yet this denial is clearly implied throughout his writings. It was because Maimonides never explicitly denied them that so many great sages refused to accept this, and assumed that Maimonides really did believe in demons. (In my book I cited many who held this position.) I first asserted that Maimonides never explicitly denied demons in my 2000 article on Maimonides and superstition, of which the second chapter in my new book is an expanded treatment. While working on the original article I was convinced that Maimonides indeed denied demons in his Commentary to Avodah Zarah 4:7. However, I had a problem in that so many who knew this text did not see it as an explicit rejection. In fact, I was unaware of anyone actually citing this text to prove that Maimonides denied the existence of demons. (Only a couple of months ago did R. Chaim Rapoport call my attention to R. Eliezer Simhah Rabinowitz, She'elot u-Teshuvot ve-Hiddushei Rabbi Eliezer Simhah [Jerusalem, 1998], no. 11, who does cite this text as an explicit rejection of the existence of demons. I also recently found that R. Avraham Noah Klein, et. el., Daf al ha-Daf [Jerusalem, 2006), Pesahim 110a, quotes the work Nofet Tzufim as saying the same thing. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, Klein doesn't have a list of sources, so I don't know who the author of this work is.)

Seeing that R. Zvi Yehudah Kook was quite adamant that Maimonides believed in demons,[22] I turned to R. Shlomo Aviner, who published R. Zvi Yehudah’s work, and asked him about Maimonides’ words in his Commentary to Avodah Zarah. Aviner convinced me that Maimonides should be understood as only denying that occult communication with demons is impossible, not the existence of demons per se. He wrote to me as follows::

הרמב"ם לא כתב שם בפירוש שאין שדים, אלא ששאלה בשדים היא הבל, וכך אנו רואים מן ההקשר שהוא מגנה שיטת שונות להשיג דברים או ידיעות, כגון "כשוף וההשבעות והמזלות הרוחניות, ודבר הכובכים והשדים והגדת עתידות ומעונן ומנחש על רוב מיניהם ושאלת המתים."

I was still not 100 percent sure, but the fact that so many great scholars who knew the Commentary to Avodah Zarah assumed that Maimonides indeed believed in demons gave me confidence that Aviner was correct.[23] Even R. Kafih, in speaking of Maimonides denial of demons, does not cite the Commentary,[24] and this sealed the matter for me. I therefore assumed that all Maimonides was denying in his Commentary to Avodah Zarah 4:7 was the possibility of conversation with demons, and not demons per se. (R. Aviner doesn't speak of simple conversation, but this was my assumption.)

Following publication of the article in 2000 no one contacted me to tell me that I was incorrect in my view of Maimonides and demons. So once again I was strengthened in my assumption, and repeated my assertion in Studies in Maimonides. Not too long ago I received an e-mail from Dr. Dror Fixler. Fixler is one of the people from Yeshivat Birkat Moshe in Maaleh Adumim who is working on new editions of Maimonides’ Commentary on the Mishnah. I will return to his work in a future post when I deal with the newly published translation of the Commentary. For now, suffice it to say that he knows Arabic very well, and he asserts that there is no doubt whatsoever that in the Commentary to Avodah Zarah 4:7 Maimonides is denying the existence of demons. So this brings me back to my original assumption many years ago, that Maimonides indeed is explicit in his denial. If there are any Arabists who choose to disagree, I would love to hear it.

8. I recently sent a copy of the reprint of Kitvei R. Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg (2 vols.) to a famous and outstanding Rosh Yeshiva. In my letter to him I mentioned that the books were a donation to the yeshiva library. He wrote back to me as follows:

מאשר בתודה קבלת כתבי הגאון רבי יחיאל יעקב וויינברג זצ"ל בשני כרכים. מלאים חכמה ודעת בקיאות וחריפות ישרה, ולפעמים "הליכה בין הטיפות" מתוך חכמת חיים רבה. אולם בכרך השני יש דברים שקשה לעכל אותם, כגון לימוד זכות על מתבוללים ממש (הרצל ואחה"ע [אחד העם] בגרון ועוד) למצוא בהם ניצוצות קדושה". ומי שיראה יחשוב כי מותר לומר לרשע צדיק אתה. לכן כרך ב' נשאר אצלי וכרך א' לעיון התלמידים הי"ו.

I don’t think that any Rosh Yeshiva in a Hesder yeshiva would say that we should shield the students from the words of a great Torah scholar, but maybe I am wrong. I would be curious to hear reactions. In response to his letter, I sent this Rosh Yeshiva R. Abraham Elijah Kaplan’s essay on Herzl, to show him that Weinberg’s views in this regard were not unique.

Interestingly, in his letter to me the Rosh Yeshiva also wrote:

מה מאד נפלא מ"ש בסוף עמוד ריט על שיטת הגר"ח מבריסק לעומת שיטת הגר"א. מבחינה זו אנו לומדים בישיבה בשיטת הגר"א.

He was referring to this amazing letter from Weinberg:

קראתי את מאמרו של הגרי"ד סולובייציק על דודו הגרי"ז זצ"ל. השפה היא נהדרה ונאדרה והסגנון הוא מקסים. אבל התוכן הוא מוגזם ומופרז מאד. כך כותבים אנשים בעלי כת, כמו אנשי חב"ד ובעלי המוסר. מתוך מאמרו מתקבל הרושם כאלו התורה לא נתנה ע"י מרע"ה חלילה כי אם ע"י ר' חיים מבריסק זצ"ל. אמת הדברים כי ר' חיים הזרים זרם חדש של פלפול ע"ד ההגיון לישיבות. בהגיון יש לכל אדם חלק, ולפיכך יכולים כל בני הישיבה לחדש חידושים בסגנון זה, משא"כ בדרך הש"ך ורעק"א צריך להיות בקי גדול בשביל להיות קצת חריף ולכן משכל אנשי הישיבות מתאוים להיות "מחדשים" הם מעדיפים את ר' חיים על כל הגאונים שקדמו לו. שאלתי פעם אחת את הגרי"ד בהיותו בברלין: מי גדול ממי: הגר"א מווילנא או ר' חיים מבריסק? והוא ענני: כי בנוגע להבנה ר' חיים גדול אף מהגר"א. אבל לא כן הדבר. הגר"א מבקש את האמת הפשוטה לאמתתה, ולא כן ר' חיים. הגיונו וסברותי' אינם משתלבים לא בלשון הגמ' ולא בלשון הרמב"ם. ר' חיים הי' לכשלעצמו רמב"ם חדש אבל לא מפרש הרמב"ם. כך אמרתי להגאון ר' משה ז"ל אבי' של הגר"יד שליט"א. 

9. My last two posts focused on R. Hayyim Dov Ber Gulevsky. With that in mind, I want to call everyone’s attention to a lecture by R. Aharon Rakefet in which he tells a great story that he himself witnessed, of how students in the Lakewood yeshiva were so angry at Gulevsky that they actually planned to cut his beard off. It is found here  [25] beginning at 65 minutes. The clip has an added treat as we get to hear the Indefatigable One, who mentions travelling to Brooklyn together with a certain “Maylech” in order to visit Gulevsky.

10. And finally, apropos of nothing, here is a picture that I think everyone will get a kick out of. It shows the Rav in his hasidic side. (Thanks to David Eisen and R. Aharon Rakefet for providing the picture.)

[1] Some of the lies of this paper have been dealt with by R. Moshe Alharar, Li-Khvodah shel Torah (Jerusalem, 1988). Here are two condemnations of Yated printed in Alharar’s book.

For examples of the paper’s most recent outrages, take a look at two articles from the issue that appeared during the Ten Days of Penitence (!). The articles are available here and here

The first is a vicious attack on the Shas MK R. Hayyim Amsellem for his authorship of a halakhic study arguing that those non-Jews who serve in the Israeli army should be converted using a less strict approach than is currently in practice. Amsellem, who is a student of R. Meir Mazuz and an outstanding talmid hakham, wrote this piece and sent it to some leading poskim to get their opinions. Amselem also discussed his approach in an interview.

What did Yated do? It attacked the “nonsensical, heretical remarks” of Amsellem, knowing full well that his article was not a practical halakhic ruling, but a work of Torah scholarship sent out for comment. And why is what he wrote “nonsensical” and “heretical”? Because it contradicts the viewpoint of “Maranan ve-Rabbanan Gedolei Yisrael,” the papacy that Yated has created.  As with every papacy, no one is permitted to have a different viewpoint. We see that clearly in the next article I linked to. Here the paper deals with the great sages who have permitted brain death. Obviously, Yated has started to believe its own papal rhetoric, since rather than offer any substantive comments, all it can do is refer to R. Elyashiv and unnamed former and current gedolei Yisrael. From Yated’s papal perspective, this is supposed to silence all debate, as if Judaism is a religious dictatorship. Yet it is not, and although Yated will never admit it, there are also former and current gedolei Yisrael who do accept brain death.
[2] “Be-Inyan ha-Gemarot ha-Mevuarot ha-Hadashim,” Or Yisrael 50 (Tevet, 5768), p. 42.
[3] “Be-Inyan Hadpasat ha-Gemara im Targumim u-Ferushim Hadashim,” Or Yisrael 50 (Tevet, 5768), pp. 39-40. Gorelik even claims that the only reason the Hafetz Hayyim agreed to support the Daf Yomi program was as a defense against the Haskalah and Reform. R. Chaim Rapoport responded to Gorelik, ibid., pp. 57ff.
[4] For the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s take on this, see here beginning at 8 minutes (called to my attention by a friend who wishes to remain anonymous). The Rebbe’s words are very strong: Since we know that “people” do not tell a lie that is likely to be found out, it must be that the liars are not in the category of “people” i.e., human beings!
[5] The phenomenon of children distorting their father’s legacy is also something that deserves a post of its own. One thinks of the efforts of the children and grandchildren of R. Gedaliah Nadel and R. Eliezer Waldenberg in opposition to the publication of Be-Torato shel R. Gedaliah and the reprinting of Hilkhot ha-Medinah. R. Nadel’s children were even successful in having Be-Torato removed from There are many other such examples, some of which relate to the Rabbinical Seminary of Berlin, which like Yeshiva University was sometimes a place to be forgotten after one left the world of German Orthodoxy. For example, see R. Shmuel Munk’s biographical introduction to the work of his father, R. Shaul Munk, Bigdei Shesh (Jerusalem, 1973). There is no mention that R. Shaul studied at the Rabbinical Seminary. If that wasn’t enough, R. Shmuel, in the introduction, p 19, even attacks the German Orthodox practice of reading German poetry, going so far as to say that no one [!] has permitted this. As with the Yated, “no one” means “no one we regard as significant.” For an earlier post that deals with a posthumous removal of the Rabbinical Seminary from one graduate’s biography, see here

None of the obituaries of R. Shlomo Wolbe mentioned that he studied at the Rabbinical Seminary of Berlin for a short while, but in this case I assume that the writers were unaware of this. The entry on Wolbe in Wikipedia does mention it, and I was the source for this information. My source is Weinberg’s letter to Samuel Atlas, dated June 10, 1965:


כך סיפר בן אחיו של וולפסון, מר אביעזר וולפסון, תלמיד מונטרה לפנים, ואח"כ תלמיד ישיבת באר יעקב, שבה משמש המנהל רוחני מר וולבה, יליד ברלין, בנו של סופר חילוני וכופר גמור. למד בכתות הנמוכות של בית מדרשנו, ואח"כ הלך לישיבת מיר ונעשה לחניכו של ר' ירוחם ז"ל, המשפיע המוסרי הגדול.


The point mentioned by Weinberg, that Wolbe was raised in a non-Orthodox home, was never a secret. Some additional details of his turn to Orthodoxy were related by Anne Ruth Cohn, Dayan Grunfeld’s daughter. See here 

Yet, as we have come to expect, the Yated cannot be honest with its readers. Thus, in its obituary here. It writes: “Shlomo Wolbe was born in Berlin to R' Moshe in Tammuz 5674,” making it seem that he was from an Orthodox home. The obituary continues with more falsehoods: As a child he studied in his home city and at a young age was sent to Yeshivas Frankfurt.” Needless to say, there is also no mention of Wolbe’s university studies.

Another example worth mentioning is the following: Those who read Making of a Godol will recall the description of R. Aaron Kotler’s irreligious sister who tried to convince him to leave the world of the yeshiva. Yet in Yitzchok Dershowitz’ hagiography of R. Aaron, The Legacy of Maran Rav Aharon Kotler (Lakewood, 2005), p. 63, this communist sister is described as “religious, but ‘secular education’ oriented.” See Zev Lev, “Al ‘Gidulo shel Gadol,’” Ha-Ma’ayan 50 (Tishrei, 5770), p. 104.

The absolute best example of this phenomenon relates to the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s brother, Yisrael Aryeh Leib. He was completely irreligious. There are people alive today who can testify to his public Sabbath violation. He even kept his store open on Shabbat. See Shaul Shimon Deutsch, Larger than Life (New York, 1997), vol. 2, ch. 7. Deutsch was even able to speak to his widow. Yisrael Aryeh Leib also has a daughter who presumably would be willing to describe what her father’s attitude towards religion was, if anyone is really interested in knowing the truth. I think it is very nice that Chabad in England commemorates his yahrzeit, see hereand this is very much in line with Chabad’s ideology that every Jew is precious. Yet what is one to make of this institute?

Here Yisrael Aryeh Leib, "the youngest brother of the Rebbe, Melech HaMoshiach, who lives forever," is turned into a rabbi and devoted chasid. I actually contacted the person who runs the “institute” and asked him how he can so blatantly distort the historical record. Communicating with him was one of the most depressing experiences I have had in a long time. It is one thing for a person to believe foolish things, but here was a guy who had drunk an extra dose of the Kool Aid, and with whom normal modes of conversation were impossible. This is actually a good limud zekhut for him: unlike many other cases where the people distorting the historical record are intentionally creating falsehoods, in this case the distorter really believes what he is saying.
[6] R. Mark Urkowitz, who was a student of R. Gorelik, told me that at the end of his life Gorelik commented to him that he was very happy he taught at YU, since this was the only yeshiva whose graduates were bringing Torah to all corners of the United States. When Urkowitz later told this story to another of Gorelik’s son, he denied that his father could ever have said this. Urkowitz and one other person recalled to me how at Gorelik’s funeral YU was never mentioned in any of the eulogies. It was as if the major part of Gorelik’s life for forty years had never existed.
[7] Ishim ve-Shitot (Tel Aviv, 1952), pp. 58-59.
[8] Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, The Rav, vol. 1, p. 227.             
[9] This is Zevin’s preface to the story (translation in Louis Jacobs, A Tree of Life [London, 2000], pp. 54-55, n. 49):

Why did R. Hayyim refuse to write responsa? Some think that his remoteness from the area of practical decisions stemmed from the fact that he belonged to the ranks of “those who fear to render decision,” being afraid of the responsibility that it entails. But this is not so. The real reason was a different one. R. Hayyim was aware that he was incapable of simply following convention and that he would be obliged, consequently, to render decisions contrary to the norm and the traditionally accepted whenever his clear intellect and fine mind would show him that the law was really otherwise than as formulated by the great codifiers. The pure conscience of a truthful man would not allow him to ignore his own opinions and submit, but he would have felt himself bound to override their decisions and this he could not bring himself to do.
[10] See here
[11] For more on Abraham Bick the communist, and his relationship with R. Moshe Bick, see here for the following report:

אברהם ביק הכרתי בפעם הראשונה כהרה''ר של רוסי' בא לבקר לארה''ב בשנת תשכ''ח ביזמת הרב טייץ מאליזאבעט נוא דזשערזי. וכבוד גדול עשו לו וכל גדולי ארצינו באו לבקר אותו ולחלוק לו כבוד -- הוא למד בסלאבאדקא והי' ממלא מקומו של הרב שלייפער, וניהל בחכמה ובתבונה את רבנתו ועמד על משמרתו הוא בא ביחד עם החזושל לענינגראד -השומר- בבארא-פארק עשו פאראד גדול וכל הישיבות והבית-יעקב יצאו לרחובה של עיר לחוק כבוד להעומד על משמרת היהדות ברוסי' משם נסעו לישיבת תורה-ודעת שכל הגדולים דברו וחיזקו את הרב לעווין .משם נסעו לאליזאבעט מקום הרב טייץ -- שחלקו רב בענייני יהדות רוסי' --  וגם שם הי' פאראד גדול. והרב לעווין הי' מאוד מרוגש .ודמעות נזלו מעיניו. נחזור לביק-הוא הי' קאמאניסט. והי' מכונה הרב של הקאמאניסטים. הוא כתב מאמרים בשבועון שלהם ותמיד המליץ טוב על הקאמאניסטים שהם לא רודפים את הדת. וכשהרב לעווין הי' כאן הוא הי' מראשי המחותנים שם. ואז דברתי איתו בפעם הראשונה. אח''כ הוא עלה לארה''ק ועבד במוסד הרב קוק ומצאתיו שם אך לא רציתי להכאיבו ולא דברנו על העבר. אז נתן לי שני ספרים א] זהרי-חמה הגהות על הזוה''ק מהיעב''ץ. ועוד ספר למוסרו לש''ב הרה''ג רמצ''א זצ''ל ביק -- הוא פשוט רצה להתפייס איתו כי הם לא היו שוה בשוה-וכשהבאתי את הספרים להרב ביק דברתי איתו על אברהם ביק ואביו הרה''ג שהי' חתן המשמרת שלום מקאדינאוו, והי' בעל הוראה מובהק. בקיצור לאחר זמן חזר לארה''ב בגין אישתו וביתו שלא היו בקו הבריאות -- הוא הי' דמות טראגית -- אביו שלחו מארה''ב ללמוד לארה''ק. אך הי' תמיד שומר תורה ומצוות הי' אידאליסט ולא הי' בן יחיד במחשבתו שהקאמאניזום יציל את האנושות והיהדות .הוא לא עשה זאת מטעם כסף .הוא לא הי' מאטראליסט. והשם הטוב יכפר בעדו.

[12] Ha-Maor, Tamuz 5726, p. 18.
[13] Ha-Gaon ha-Rav Meir Amsel (Monsey, 2008), p. 262.
[14] See R. Yaakov Hayyim Sofer in Moriah, Nisan 5769, p. 150.
[15] R. Chaim Rapoport provides some of these sources in his article in Or Yisrael, Tishrei 5770.
[16] For R. Abraham Elijah Kaplan’s view, see his Mivhar Ketavim (Jerusalem, 2006), pp. 287-288.
[17] After quoting this halakhah, Rama cites an opposing view, but this is cited as יש אומרים, meaning that the first ruling is the one Rama accepts. Even this view is not something that would go over well in the Modern Orthodox world: וי"א דאסור להטעותו אלא אם טעה מעצמו שרי
[18] Although he might not be fired, any Modern Orthodox rabbi who stated as follows would also be in hot water, as the congregation would be outraged: “One is not allowed to admire gentiles or praise them.” The writer of these words goes on to say that collecting baseball cards is also forbidden. “While it may be that some people trade them only for financial gain, the reason for collecting the cards is more likely because of an appreciation and admiration for the personalities depicted on them. This is forbidden.” Quite apart from the terrible lack of judgment in putting the first sentence (“One is not allowed to admire gentiles or praise them”) into an English language book (for obvious reasons), should we be surprised that a halakhist who thinks baseball cards are forbidden is one of the poskim of the formerly Modern Orthodox OU? See R. Yisrael Belsky, Shulchan Halevi (Kiryat Sefer, 2008), pp. 132, 133. (For another ruling against baseball cards, see R. Yitzhak Abadi, Or Yitzhak, Yoreh Deah no. 26.) In discussing the issue of praising Gentiles and the prohibition of le tehanem, Meiri writes as follows, in words that have become basic to the Modern Orthodox ethos (Beit ha-Behirah: Avodah Zarah 20a):

כל שהוא מן האומות הגדורות בדרכי הדתות ושמודות בא-להות אין ספק שאף בשאין מכירו מותר וראוי.

[19] Samuel Cohon discusses Rama's ruling in Faithfully Yours (Jersey City, 2008), pp. 87-88.
[20] See similarly R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady, Shulhan Arukh, Hilkhot Ona’ah, no. 11.
[21] Along these lines, see here for a recent article by R Binyamin Lau dealing with a husband who wanted to know if he was halakhically permitted to hit his wife.
[22] Sihot ha-Rav Tzvi Yehudah: Bereishit, ed. Aviner (Jerusalem, 1993), pp. 295-297, 310-312.
[23] In Studies in Maimonides I cite numerous examples. Here is one more to add to the list. R. Tzefanyah Arusi, “’Lo ba-Shamayim Hi’ be-Mishnat ha-Rambam,” Mesorah le-Yosef 6 (2009), p. 396:

מה שהשיג הגר"א בעניין השדים והכשפים, יש להשיב על כל דבריו: וכי מניין לו שלדברי רבנו אין מציאות לשדים ולמכשפים וכיו"ב.

[24] See his Ketavim (Jerusalem, 1989),  vol. 2, pp. 600-601.
[25] “The Bracha for Kidush Ha-Shem,” Sep. 21, 2008.

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