Monday, February 08, 2016

Open Orthodoxy and Its Main Critic, part 1

Open Orthodoxy and Its Main Critic, part 1
Marc B. Shapiro


Please note: The conversation in the comments, while of importance, does not fit the focus of the Seforim Blog. Anyone who wishes to continue can email Dr. Shapiro or the conversation can be continued on a different website.
1. Those who follow Jewish debates on the internet have probably heard of Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer, who has assumed the mantle of defender of the faith. He sees his goal as exposing the non-Orthodox nature of Open Orthodoxy, and has spent many hundreds of hours reading everything written by Open Orthodox figures (and their spouses), looking for a problematic sentence in order to pounce on them. He not only attacks the Open Orthodox rabbis but also shows his contempt for them by generally refusing to even mention their names. Instead, he refers to an unnamed Open Orthodox rosh yeshiva or rabbi and you don’t know who he is speaking about until you click on the link. I realize he doesn’t respect these figures, but to even deny them the simple courtesy of mentioning their names, as if to do so is muktzeh mehamat mius, is in my opinion simply disgraceful (albeit a common writing style in the haredi world).
This obsession with the Open Orthodox reminds me of how in earlier centuries Christian zealots “could declare themselves ‘crusaders’, join a company of St. Peter Martyr, and assume a special responsibility for denouncing suspicious behaviour to the Holy Office.”[1] It also reminds me of how in previous years the right wing would constantly attack YU and Modern Orthodoxy. Now that the Open Orthodox are under attack, YU and Modern Orthodoxy re getting a pass. But make no mistake about it, if there wasn’t an Open Orthodoxy to kick around, YU and Modern Orthodoxy would once again be the focus. It appears to me, and many others, that all of Rabbi Gordimer’s attacks are pretty meaningless by now, as we get it, he doesn’t like Open Orthodoxy and he thinks that they are not “Orthodox” (a Christian term which perhaps it is time to jettison). Simply drumming this point continuously is not going to make it any clearer.[2]
R. Kook famously said that the righteous do not complain about heresy but add faith.[3] In other words, they always focus on the positive. Now the truth is that this quote, taken by itself, is problematic, as we have examples where R. Kook himself complained about heresy. I think that the passage therefore must be speaking in generalities. In other words, he doesn’t mean that the righteous never complain, but that their essential nature does not focus on the negative and finding the flaws in others. Rather, they are focused on adding faith in order to show the truth of their own position.
Rabbi Gordimer gives us a continuing list of controversial statements from people identified with Open Orthodoxy. As mentioned, he will spend hours and hours reading their material until he finally hits pay dirt. We are never told about any of the good things he sees in the writers he so often attacks, and how 99% of what he reads in their writings is not objectionable. I also find it most curious (but not unexpected) that it is only the left who are subjected to this type of detailed examination, all in order to find material with which to attack them. What about people on the right who also say objectionable things? Why are they not subjected to the same criticisms? How come he criticizes Open Orthodox figures for their liberal Zionism, but never says a word of criticism about the anti-Zionism found in Satmar and other haredi groups? The question is rhetorical.
Another problem is that while Rabbi Gordimer himself tries to stick to the issues, the comments to his posts, which have to be approved before being posted, sometimes do contain derogatory and insulting remarks about individuals. How can anyone view this as appropriate?
I have no difficulty if someone wants to criticize, even sharply, Open Orthodox writers, as long as there are no personal attacks. In fact, if the criticisms of Rabbi Gordimer and others were offered on a basis of friendship and common purpose, I can tell you without hesitation that the Open Orthodox writers would be grateful for the criticism and dialogue, as they want nothing more than to engage with all segments of the Jewish world, including the more right wing elements.
As mentioned above, I find it most objectionable that all of Rabbi Gordimer’s (and others’) criticism is of the left, never the right. I have made this point in a number of lectures. Occasionally, individuals have replied to me that it is unfair to compare Open Orthodox ideas with actions of people identified with the haredi world, as these actions are simply the result of people making mistakes and say nothing about haredi Judaism itself. Thus, they claim, if a criminal is haredi, this has nothing to do with the ideals or teachings of haredi society.
While there is some truth to this argument, it is not entirely true. For example, the widespread cover-ups of sexual abuse in haredi society, and the reluctance to go to the authorities, are directly related to haredi ideology. Yet Rabbi Gordimer has never commented on this. I also have no doubt that some financial crimes in the haredi world, including by institutions such as yeshivot, are often related to both the structure of haredi society, which leads many into poverty, and also haredi teachings that may downplay or even deny the halakhic prohibition of certain white collar criminal activity. And you don’t need me to say this. Haredim say the same thing all the time. I mention this only to stress that just as I would be the first to say that there is plenty to criticize in Open Orthodox thought, there is also plenty to criticize in haredi thought (and also in Centrist thought). In fact, as we shall soon see, one can find things written by those on the right that I think many readers, including haredim, would find even more objectionable than what Rabbi Gordimer has written about.
Before going further, let me note that there is much that Rabbi Gordimer criticizes that I don’t find at all objectionable, and I will give an example of this below. By the same token, there are aspects of the Open Orthodox critique of haredism and Centrism that I do not share, and I don’t expect either the haredim or the Open Orthodox to agree with everything I write either. But that is OK, as no one can expect everyone to agree on everything. Well-founded criticism is a vital part of any society and must be appreciated. Just as there is what to criticize in all camps, there is also a great deal to praise in all camps (and in some areas, in particular Torah study and respect for Torah scholarship, the haredi world is far superior to what is found among non-haredim in the United States).
As noted already, Rabbi Gordimer is an avid reader of Open Orthodox writings. In fact, I think he has read more such writings than anyone else (even more than the Open Orthodox!), and yet he is not able to come up with anything positive that they say or do. This shows me that he is not being fair, as I can give a long list of great things that Open Orthodox rabbis have done across the country, things that even the most right wing would applaud. I can do the same with haredi rabbis and I guarantee you that Open Orthodox rabbis would applaud. Contrary to the mean caricatures one finds online, the Open Orthodox are some of the most genuine and giving people I have ever met, and I say this as one who has never been an adherent of Open Orthodoxy. The Open Orthodox leadership and its rabbis show respect not only for those on their left (which leads Rabbi Gordimer and others to criticize them) but also for those on their right, as I can attest from many years of personal interaction. (When I speak of respect for those on their right, I am not referring to people like myself, but of Torah scholars firmly ensconced in the haredi world who do not reciprocate this respect.) In short, we must recognize there is a lot of good in all camps and we should support positive developments no matter where they originate.
Furthermore, it is important for the halakhic community to understand that there needs to be different paths for different people as not everyone has the same spiritual make-up. It is therefore important to have responsible halakhic authorities who can speak to the different communities. Rather than engaging in constant criticism, Rabbi Gordimer should be happy that the communities on the left are able to turn to an outstanding talmid chacham such as R. Dov Linzer, as he understands their situation and can provide proper guidance. I encourage people to examine some of R. Linzer's recent halakhic writings here.
Returning to an earlier comment I made, if the point of all the criticism of Open Orthodoxy is the protection of authentic Judaism by countering the distortions on the left, then shouldn’t the distortions on the right also be countered? Aren’t these also dangerous, even more dangerous as they reach a wider range of people and are regarded as authentic Torah teachings by many? Since Rabbi Gordimer and others only look to criticize those to their left, never those to their right, they must ask themselves if the protection of Judaism is really their only goal, or if, unconsciously perhaps, their crusade against Open Orthodoxy also has other motivations.
When I have mentioned these points to various people, they always ask me to provide examples of what I am talking about, i.e., of writings from the haredi world that should be criticized by Rabbi Gordimer in the same way he criticizes what Open Orthodox writers are saying. There are lots of examples I could give (and readers can find some of them in previous posts), but let me choose a book that was actually removed from a synagogue library because of the views expressed in it.[4]
In 2007 Rabbi Dovid Kaplan published Major Impact.[5]


It has a chapter entitled “Jews and Goyim”. The chapter begins as follows:
Every Shabbos in Kiddush we declare that HaKadosh Baruch Hu chose us from all the nations. At every Havdalah we declare that we’re as different from them as day is from night. It’s always interesting to see examples of just how different we are. So read this chapter and then enjoy your next Kiddush and Havdalah.
Here are some examples from the chapter:
We once took our kids on a trip to the United States. A goy on the plane asked me how many children we have. I told him five. “How old are they,” he asked. “The oldest is eight, and the youngest is three months.” “Wow,” he said with a look of disbelief, “you have twins?”
COMMENT: The idea of bringing children into the world on a regular basis was utterly foreign to his way of thinking. 
The Polish maid brought her fiancé to meet her employer, Rebbetzin Ruchama Shain. “You have to treat your wife with respect,” she said. “Oh, don’t worry. I’ll only beat her if she disobeys me,” responded the big shaigetz.
COMMENT: And he’ll only steal if he doesn’t have enough money. And he’ll only kill if he’s upset. And he’ll only . . . 
Shechitah houses often employ goyim, big strong ones, to help with the animals. A friend related the following incident to me. A cow had just been shechted. One of the goyim walked over with an empty cup, filled it with blood that was oozing from the neck, and then drank it down.
COMMENT: For him there’s no issue. For us it’s unimaginable. 
I once saw a young boy sitting on a fence at the zoo. A little old goyish lady wearing a zoo maintenance outfit approached him. “Come on down off that fence honey,” she said, “cuz I don’t want you to fall.” Wow, I thought to myself. It’s nice of her to be so concerned. I was really impressed, but only briefly. “cuz if you fall there’ll be brains all over the place, and I don’t wanna hafta clean up no brains.”
COMMENT: Can you imagine a Jewish bubby ever talking like that? 
Dr. Jacobs was making his rounds through the ward accompanied by Dr. Obama [!], an African-American. “What’s happening with Mr. O’Neill?” he asked Dr. Obama. 
“Her blood pressure is up and she has a little edema. Other than that she’s fairly stable.”
“I asked about Mr. O’Neill.”
“And I answered. ”
“But why did you refer to him as ‘she’?”
“Oh, I guess you wouldn’t know. Mr. O’Neill is eighty-eight years old. Back in Africa our native tribe has a custom. Once a man passes eighty-five and can’t do much, he’s referred to as ‘she.’”
COMMENT: We place older people on a pedestal and make every effort to make them feel important. Anything that may even remotely reduce their dignity is by definition pasul. And them? Yuch![6]
I realize that most of these stories are made up in order to make non-Jews look bad, but this last one is really stupid, even as a racist story, since when was the last time you heard an African-American referring to the customs of his native tribe? Also, in case anyone missed it, the name “Obama” is probably not an accident.
I don’t think there is any need for me to elaborate on how offensive this material is. Everyone understands how we would react if the focus was Jews and if one were to extrapolate from a (phony) story with one Jew to the entire Jewish people. The ideology expressed in this book (and others like it) is in direct opposition to everything I was taught about how Torah is supposed to make one a more refined individual. I also wonder, how many potential baalei teshuvah who picked up this book were turned off to Judaism after reading what I have quoted?[7]
I have no doubt that Rabbi Gordimer agrees with me that the views expressed in this book are not in line with what we should stand for as a people. So will we see a condemnation of this book and of ones that express similar views, or do they get a pass because they emanate from the haredi world?
Despite my great opposition to this book, I am willing to acknowledge that other things the author has written can be valuable. Why can't Rabbi Gordimer, despite his criticism of Open Orthodox writers, admit that even if he disagrees with them about certain things, they can still make valuable contributions in areas where he would agree with them? In sum, when Rabbi Gordimer begins criticizing the problems in the haredi and centrist worlds with the same enthusiasm (or even half the enthusiasm) as he takes on writers in the Open Orthodox world, then I and many others might begin to take him seriously as someone who can offer a valuable perspective.
I should note that R. Yitzchok Adlerstein has made some comments relevant to the matter I have just discussed:
Mean-spirited and racist remarks made on comboxes on websites catering to the Chassidic community turn up quoted on anti-Semitic and anti-Israel websites. . . . Enough material exists to make it easy for intelligent outsiders to get beyond the posturing of spokespeople and learn about attitudes often expressed by the masses. For decades, observant Jews of all persuasions could go about their business flying under the radar of their neighbors. If they stayed out of trouble with the law (or did a good enough job at keeping malefactors out of the headlines), they were more than tolerated by other Americans. There are no longer any secrets. Every small group is the subject of inquiry, and the free sharing of information means that outside investigators quickly learn what people speak about behind closed doors. 
Agudath Israel undertook an impressive program of community education to parts of its membership regarding dina demalchuta[8] and chillul Hashem[9] in the aftermath of too many high-profile scandals. It will not be enough. The next exposés (they have already begun) will not deal so much with criminal behavior as with rejection and contempt. Many Americans who are not anti-Semitic will still not take kindly to the thought that large numbers of people, albeit minorities even within their own communities, have little or no regard for them as human beings, and no concern for their welfare. Those who take the policy of hen am levadad yishkon to the limit will soon learn that there are minimum expectations placed upon citizens not by law but by popular sentiment. If they wish to live as equals in the United States, they will have to come to some sort of modus vivendi with other Jewish values like darkhei shalom and genuine regard for the tzelem Elokim in all people.[10]
Let me now turn to the reason I have been discussing Rabbi Gordimer in the first place, and that is his attack on R. Ysoscher Katz found here. Rabbi Gordimer claims that there is no such thing as Modern Orthodox pesak, and that decisions by Modern Orthodox poskim “should look no different than if [they] were adjudicated by a chareidi posek; process (research) and product (conclusion) should be indistinguishable.” This is simply false, as anyone who knows the writings of Modern Orthodox poskim can attest. A posek is not a computer. All sorts of meta-halakhic considerations go into his rulings and this explains why a Modern Orthodox posek will come to different conclusions than haredi poskim on many issues. I am not referring to whether a tea bag can be used on Shabbat, as in this sort of case there shouldn’t be any differences between haredi and Modern Orthodox poskim, but in matters concerning which the two camps differ (e.g., the role of women) there will obviously be differences among the poskim.
For Rabbi Gordimer, all poskim share the same “process”. Not only is this historically incorrect, it isn’t even “doctrine”. Does he really think that there are any haredim who believe that Modern Orthodox poskim operate the same way as haredi poskim? Of course they don’t, which is precisely the reason why they reject Modern Orthodox halakhists, because they know that their meta-halakhic values influence their halakhic decisions. The haredim don’t oppose meta-halakhic values per se. Meta-halakhah has a very prominent place in haredi halakhah. It is the particular Modern Orthodox meta-halakhic values that they see as problematic.
I realize that for people reading this post what I have just said is neither new or even controversial. Many of you are probably wondering why I am even wasting my time in making an obvious point. So let me mention some important sources that you might have been unaware of that illustrate what I have been saying.
In 1951 R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik was asked if it was permitted to volunteer to serve as a chaplain in the U.S. armed forces, as this might lead to various halakhic problems, in particular with regard to Shabbat. Before analyzing the halakhic sources, R. Soloveitchik gives us an insight into the meta-halakhic factors that are operating within him. He confesses his lack of objectivity in a way that directly contradicts his portrayal of how Halakhic Man operates. A haredi posek who did not see any value in participating in larger American society could never have penned the following words, which stand as a complete rejection of Rabbi Gordimer’s point:
I have undertaken the research into the halakhic phase of this problem, which is fraught with grave political and social implications on the highest level of public relations, with utmost care and seriousness. Yet, I cannot lay claim to objectivity if the latter should signify the absence of axiological premises and a completely emotionally detached attitude. The halakhic inquiry, like any other cognitive theoretical performance, does not start out from the point of absolute zero as to sentimental attitudes and value judgments. There always exists in the mind of the researcher an ethico-axiological background against which the contours of the subject matter in question stand out more clearly. In all fields of human intellectual endeavor there is always an intuitive approach which determines the course and method of the analysis. Not even in exact sciences (particularly in their interpretive phase) is it possible to divorce the human element from the formal aspect. Hence this investigation was also undertaken in a similar subjective mood. From the very outset I was prejudiced in favor of the project of the Rabbinical Council of America and I could not imagine any halakhic authority rendering a decision against it. My inquiry consisted only in translating a vague intuitive feeling into fixed terms of halakhic discursive thinking.[11]
R. Soloveitchik’s description does not only apply to himself, but is how all poskim operate, although, with the possible exception of R. Jehiel Jacob Weinberg, none of them have been as self-reflective as R. Soloveitchik. It would actually be a good project to interview different poskim and see how each of them formulate the role of intuition and their own “ethico-axiological background” in the formation of halakhic decisions. In R. Nachum Rabinovitch’s recently published Mesilot bi-Levavam,[12] he states that a posek who is not guided by broad ethical considerations, a pesak of his “is not worth the paper it is written on.” These ethical considerations will of course vary, depending on whether the posek is haredi or Modern Orthodox/Religious Zionist.
Here are two examples of what I am talking about from R. Jehiel Jacob Weinberg, and which shows how wrong Rabbi Gordimer is in his assumption that one’s ideology doesn’t affect one’s halakhic decisions. R. Weinberg was asked about the halakhic permissibility of autopsies in the State of Israel. He wrote as follows (Kitvei ha-Gaon Rabbi Jehiel Jacob Weinberg, vol. 1, p. 42):
והנה זה דבר ברור, שלעולם לא יגיעו בארץ ישראל לדעה אחת . . . ופתרון השאלה תלוי הרבה בהערכת המצב בעולם הרפואה, וביחס אל המדינה ומוסדותיה; וגם בהבנת המצב במחקר מדע הרפואי, וביחס אל החכמים העוסקים במדע זה, הן במחקר והן בשמוש למעשה.
R. Weinberg explicitly tells us that how one decides the halakhah depends on how one evaluates a series of non-halakhic matters. One of these is how one relates to the State of Israel. Obviously, a haredi posek who sees no real significance to the State of Israel will be inclined to rule one way, while a posek who regards Jewish self-rule as being of momentous significance will be inclined to rule differently. None of what I am saying is at all radical or controversial. It is simply obvious to anyone who studies halakhic literature.
Elsewhere, as we have seen in previous posts, R. Weinberg states that if there is a dispute among halakhic authorities we must reject the view that will bring the Torah into disrepute in people's eyes (Kitvei ha-Gaon Rabbi Jehiel Jacob Weinberg, vol. 1, p. 60):
ואגלה להדר"ג [הגרא"י אונטרמן] מה שבלבי: שמקום שיש מחלוקת הראשונים צריכים הרבנים להכריע נגד אותה הדעה, שהיא רחוקה מדעת הבריות וגורמת לזלזול וללעג נגד תוה"ק.
Obviously, a posek from a closed haredi society is going to have a different view regarding whether a halakhic decision will bring the Torah into disrepute in people’s eyes. In fact, I would assume that such a posek would reject R. Weinberg’s statement completely, seeing it as giving in to modern values even when in opposition to Torah sources.
Although I can cite numerous other texts to support what I am saying, let me just add one more. The late R. Aharon Felder, She’elat Aharon, vol. 1, no. 12, responded to someone who claimed that R. Moshe Feinstein’s halakhic decisions were not at all influenced by his nature or surroundings. R. Felder completely rejects this claim and adds[13]:
לא נתנה תורה למלאכי השרת וזהו כלל גדול אף בקשר למנהיגי ופוסקי הדור.
I mention R. Felder since I have very fond memories of a Shabbat I spent as scholar-in-residence in his shul not long before his untimely passing. I was fortunate to be able to spend hours talking with him over that Shabbat, and by telephone afterwards. While people generally knew him as a posek, he was also full of information about great rabbis, many of whom he knew personally, and he was happy to share this information. Here is a picture of us together.
One of the interesting things I learnt from speaking to him was that he had semichah from R. Shlomo Yosef Zevin. I think this is very unusual as I have never met anyone else who received semichah from R. Zevin. This connection to R. Zevin probably explained something else that happened over the Shabbat which was also very unusual. On Shabbat morning R. Felder spoke. Usually, when there is a scholar-in-residence the rabbi does not speak, but R. Felder had something he wanted to say. He devoted most of the derashah, which dealt with the importance of truth, to my post here on ArtScroll’s censorship of R. Zevin’s Ha-Moadim ba-Halakhah. Having a derashah focus on a Seforim Blog post was certainly a new one for me. In the derashah, R. Felder mentioned that when he first learnt of the censorship years ago, he told Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz that what ArtScroll did was completely wrong, and that while they are entitled to disagree with what R. Zevin wrote, they had no right alter his words.
To Be Continued

2. This past year we were told that it was Agudath Israel of America's 93rd convention. This convention was significant as the Agudah finally threw in the towel and accepted the internet, setting up a website for the convention and broadcasting live. See here. The Agudah now has its own website here.

This new policy came in through the back door, with no explanation as to why something that until now has been forbidden is now permitted. This was typical for the Agudah, and years from now we will probably be able to read in the official history of Agudath Israel of America how the Agudah was among the first to recognize the great value of the internet for spreading Torah, and how the Agudah immediately seized this opportunity. Also of interest is that although the website just mentioned is the official Agudah website, and reports on all that is going on with Agudath Israel of America, it is called the Lefkowitz Leadership Initiative. Yet as anyone who examines the website can see, the Lefkowitz Leadership Initiative is only a small part of the website. Apparently, there is still a problem with calling the Agudah website by its proper name so they had to use a bit of false advertising by referring to it as the Lefkowitz Leadership Initiative.

What about the “93rd convention”? This would mean that the first Agudath Israel of America convention was in 1923 (as we are speaking about annual conventions). How is this possible if Agudath Israel in America was not formed until 1939 and its first convention was held on July 9-11, 1939?[14] See here for a 1950 news report which speaks of the 28th annual convention. This would mean that the first convention was indeed in 1923. Yet see here for a 1947 news report that speaks of Agudah’s 9th annual convention. This would mean that the first convention was in 1939, which is indeed correct. In years prior to 1947 the reports of the Agudah conventions also give 1939 as the year of the first convention.

So what happened between 1947 and 1950 and how did the Agudah start portraying itself as having conventions before Agudath Israel of America even existed? Rabbi Moshe Kolodny, the Agudah archivist, informed me that the 93rd year is a commemoration of the founding of the American branch of the World Agudat Israel on July 20, 1921. (As already mentioned, Agudah Israel of America was itself not founded until 1939). The problem with this explanation is that the 2015 convention should then be the 95th convention, not the 93rd. This is quite apart from the fact that I don’t understand how the Agudah can speak of 93 conventions when until 1939 there weren’t any annual conventions for Agudath Israel of America.

1923 as a year is significant in Agudah history, as it is the year when the first World Agudath Israel convention took place in Vienna. This is the convention from which we have the recently discovered video of the Chafetz Chaim. What I think happened is that between 1947 and 1950 some Agudah functionary decided that the annual Agudath Israel of America convention should be tied to 1923, and that is why this year’s convention was called the 93rd convention. The problem with this is, as mentioned, not only that Agudah Israel of America has not had 93 conventions, but that even if you date the conventions to 1923, you still don’t get 93 conventions. I say this because while the first world Agudah convention was held in 1923, this was not a yearly event. The next world convention was not held until 1929.

I have told this to a number of people and they are all surprised. Yet I find it hard to believe that I am the first person to point out that there have not been 93 annual conventions. Maybe some of the readers who attended the convention can weigh in. Can it really be that no one in attendance realized the problem involved in advertising it as the 93rd convention?

I realize that next year when the Agudah announces its 94th convention, opponents of the Agudah will, based on this post, write about how 94 is an incorrect number. But the more important point is that the Agudah actually has an annual convention. Mizrachi used to have an annual convention, but it is no more. Isn't it significant that the Modern Orthodox have nothing to equal the annual Agudah convention?

3. A couple of months ago I was speaking to two people and one of them asked me why, if the right wing is so opposed to Open Orthodoxy, that they don’t just put its leaders in herem. I replied that in today’s day and age we don’t find anyone being put in herem. They will put books in herem but not individuals, as we saw with R. Nathan Kamenetsky and R. Natan Slifkin. Why don’t they put people in herem anymore? The answer usually given is that no one will pay attention to the herem.[15] Yet people don’t pay attention to the herems on books either, and that hasn’t stopped them from banning books.

In the discussion one of the people said that if they would put a herem on the leaders of Open Orthodoxy, they would have to also to put a herem on some women, and this would never work.  As he put it, the negative publicity would be too much, as the rabbis would be portrayed as big bullies coming after defenseless women. I have no idea if this is the reason why they haven't put a herem on the Open Orthodox leadership, but I have to confess that I had never thought of the female angle. It probably is the case that putting women in herem would create a public relations nightmare that would equal what we have seen with the sexual abuse cover-ups and the declarations that basic historical and scientific knowledge is to be regarded as heresy. (In fact, I think that even putting men in herem in this day and age would lead to a big backlash.) That then got me thinking, how often in Jewish history have women been put in herem? I am only aware of the following cases: one in the Talmud,[16] two others discussed by R. David Ibn Zimra[17] and R. Meir Katzenellenbogen[18] respectively, and another two separate cases that involved many Italian rabbis.[19] Yet there must be others.

4. As I write this post, Yosef Mizrachi is in the news. It began with his unbelievably ignorant comments about the Holocaust and soon moved into other outrageous things he said, both about the Holocaust and in general.[20] Years ago I found another really offensive comment about the Holocaust, yet in this case the author was actually a well-known posek. In seeking to explain why the Holocaust occurred, R. Ovadiah Hadaya writes as follows, in words that sound like they could have been said by Mizrachi:[21]

לפעמים יש הרבה ממזרים בישראל שלא ידועים ואז הקב"ה מוכרח למחותם וכדי שלא יתביישו משפחתם אז הקב"ה נותן רשות למשחית להרוג גם טובים עמהם בכדי שלא יורגשו מי הם הממזרים.

Just think about the implications of this statement. 6 million pure Jewish souls, including 1 million children, are destroyed, and R. Hadaya suggests this was done to get rid of the mamzerim. Furthermore, in order not to embarrass the families of the mamzerim all the rest had to be killed as well, as if the omnipotent God couldn’t come up with some other way to take care of this. I don’t think that this passage can even be called “theodicy”, as theodicy is the defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence in the face of evil. The theology of this passage, if accepted as true, would actually lead people to doubt God’s goodness and omnipotence.

One day, not long after I found this passage, I was in the National Library of Israel reading room, and there, as usual, was Prof. David Weiss Halivni. I was very comfortable talking with him, but I wasn’t sure if I should tell him about what R. Hadaya said. I thought it might really unsettle him, seeing how a rabbi could give this explanation as to why all his loved ones were slaughtered in the most cruel way. In the end, I decided to share it with him. All Prof. Halivni said, and this is applicable to Mizrachi as well, is that when it comes to the Holocaust Sephardim simply don’t get it. What he meant was that not having the personal connection to the Holocaust, their discussions of it are without the emotional intensity one finds in the Ashkenazic world. In the Ashkenazic world, detached explanations of the sort offered by R. Hadaya and Mizrachi would be too offensive to even consider.



[1] Brian Pullan, The Jews of Europe and the Inquisition of Venice, 1550-1670 (London, 1997),  p. 100.
[2] If one looks at the attacks that have been made on Open Orthodoxy by Rabbi Gordimer and others, you will find the Open Orthodox placed together with Early Christians, Sadducees, Reform, and Conservative Jews. A friend commented that it is a wonder that they aren’t also compared to Sabbateans. I replied that this is probably only because the attackers are unaware of the fact that Shabbetai Zvi gave women aliyot, a step that Gershom Scholem describes as the “substitution of a messianic Judaism for the traditional and imperfect one.” See Sabbatai Zvi, p. 403.
[3] Shemonah Kevatzim 2:99.          
[4] It would be interesting to create a list of books removed from synagogue libraries for heresy or other reasons. When I was in yeshiva in Israel (and some of my classmates will probably remember this episode), Rabbi Alfred Kolatch’s Second Jewish Book of Why popped up in the beit midrash. This volume, and the others in Kolatch’s series, were extremely popular and sold more than 1.5 million copies. See here. Kolatch was a Yeshiva College graduate but he was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary. One of the teachers at the yeshiva insisted on having the book removed because the author was a Conservative rabbi. This teacher also wanted to show that Kolatch was an ignoramus. He pointed to a passage, p. 294, where Kolatch discusses why women are not obligated in tzitzit. Kolatch mentions that most assume that it is a mitzvat aseh she-ha-zeman gerama. He also offers another option, that in ancient times the four-cornered type of garment to which tzitzit were attached was a male garment, so women never adopted the practice of tzitzit. The teacher mocked the notion that tzitzit had anything to do with a male garment, and was adamant that the only reason women do not wear tzitzit is because it is a time-bound positive commandment. Unbeknownst to the teacher, and I didn’t feel comfortable mentioning it to him at the time as I thought he might not take it well after making such a public case against Kolatch, Targum Pseudo-Jonathan includes tzitzit (and tefillin) as male garments which women are forbidden to wear. See Targum Ps. Jonathan, Deut. 22:5.
[5] This book was called to my attention by Michael Steel.
[6] It is true that observant Jews place older people on a pedestal. Sometimes they may even go too far. R. Solomon Kluger, one of the most outstanding nineteenth-century poskim, has a passage that is very difficult to understand. It appears in his commentary on the Shulhan Arukh, Hokhmat Shlomo, Hoshen Mishpat 426.

According to R. Kluger, if one has to put oneself in a degrading situation or if it requires too much effort to save the life of another, then one doesn’t have to do it. In giving an example of טרחה יתרה he mentions an old person, who according to R. Kluger would not be obligated to trouble himself excessively to save the life of another. Many have discussed this strange passage (and surprisingly, a number of the discussions do not note that at the end R. Kluger appears to backtrack from his hiddush). R. Moshe Feinstein, Iggerot Moshe, Yoreh Deah 2, p. 290, uses the following very strong language regarding R. Kluger’s suggestion:

הוא טעות גמור ושרי להו מרייהו, דדברי חכמת שלמה הא ודאי ח"ו לאומרם.

As we have come to expect, at least one scholar questioned the authenticity of R. Kluger’s words, a phenomenon we find whenever a radical position is expressed. But in this case the scholar I am referring to is the great R. Reuven Margaliyot who should have known better. He writes (Nefesh Hayah, 13:3):

והנה על כגון דא בוודאי אמרו דחדש אסור מן התורה ותמה אני אם יצאו דברים הללו מפיו הקדוש.

When I first saw R. Kluger’s words, I thought of R. Moses Isserles, Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 251:9:

ואפילו חכם לכסות ועם הארץ להחיות [החכם קודם] ואשת חבירו כחבר.

Many understand להחיות to mean literally to save from death. I think most will offer a sigh of relief that the Shakh writes:
בזמן הזה שאין תלמיד חכם . . . כל שכן דאין לדחות פקוח נפש מפניו.

[7] Contrast what appears in Kaplan's book with what R. Ahron Soloveichik wrote:
Every human being, regardless of religion, race, origin, or creed, is endowed with divine dignity. Consequently all people are to be treated with equal respect and dignity.  
Anyone who fails to apply a uniform standard of mishpat, justice, tzedek, righteousness, to all human beings regardless of origin, color or creed is deemed barbaric.  
People who refuse to grant any human being the same respect that they offer to their own race or nationality are adopting a barbaric attitude.
The quotations all come from R. Soloveichik's Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind (Jerusalem, 1991), and are discussed in Meir Soloveichik's recent essay, "Founding Brothers": The Rav, Rav Ahron, and the American Idea," in Soloveichik, et al., eds., Torah and Western Thought: Intellectual Portraits of Orthodoxy and Modernity (New Milford, CT, 2015), pp. 96ff.

Torah and Western Thought is quite an interesting book and I highly recommend it. It also contains essays on R. Kook, R. Isaac Herzog, Nehama Leibowitz, R. Immanuel Jakobovits, R. Yehuda Amital, R. Aharon Lichtenstein, R. Norman Lamm, and Prof. Isadore Twersky. For obvious reasons the essay on Twersky, written by Carmi Horowitz, was of particular interest to me, and I was very happy to read, p. 258 n. 26, that Rabbi David Shapiro "is now editing and preparing for publication more than twenty years of Rabbi Twersky's divrei Torah delivered at the Talner Beit Midrash."
[8] As long ago as 1819, Leopold Zunz wrote about “the persistent delusion, contrary to law, that it is permissible to cheat non-Jews.” See Amos Elon, The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the Germany-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933 (New York, 2002),  p. 113. In an earlier post here I wrote:
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.
After writing this I heard R. Jeremy Wieder’s shiur on the topic of dina de-malchuta dina (available here) and he makes some very similar points.
[9] This is a mistake. It is not Hashem (with a capital “H”, implying “God”) but hashem (or ha-shem). I.e., it is not a desecration of God but of His name. Thus, one should writeחילול השם  not חילול ה'. See Lev. 22:32: ולא תחללו את שם קדשי. Nissim Dana titled his 1989 translation of one of R. Abraham Maimonides' works ספר המספיק לעובדי השם. Yet the last two words should be 'לעובדי ה.
Regarding the use the “Hashem”, I found something very confusing in the ArtScroll Stone Chumash. In place of the Tetragrammaton, ArtScroll does not use the word “Lord” but “HASHEM”, as this is how people pronounce the Tetragrammaton. While ArtScroll is the first translation to adopt this approach, it does have a certain logic. However, this logic breaks down a few times on p. 319 when the ArtScroll commentary attempts to explain what occurs at the beginning of parashat Va-Era. For example, “Or HaChaim comments that God’s essence is represented by the name HASHEM.” This makes no sense, as there is no name HASHEM. The commentary should have written that “God’s essence is represented by the four letter name of God.”
[10] “Digital Orthodoxy: The Making and Unmaking of a Lifestyle,” in Yehuda Sarna, ed., Developing a Jewish Perspective on Culture (New York, 2014), pp. 280-281.
[11] Community, Covenant and Commitment, ed. N. Helfgot (Jersey City, 2005), pp. 24-25. See also The Rav Speaks (Brooklyn, 2002), pp. 49-50: “I once said that there exists problems for which one cannot find a clear-cut decision in the Shulchan Aruch (code of Jewish law); one has to decide intuitively." For another example where we see that R. Soloveitchik did not operate as Halakhic Man, see R. Menachem Genack, “My First Year in the Rav’s Shiur,” in Zev Eleff, ed., Mentor of Generations (Jersey City, 2008), p. 171:
I went to be menachem avel [console the mourner] at his home on Hancock Road in Brookline on Shushan Purim. His aveilus on Shushan Purim itself was something of a chiddush: although the Mechaber writes that one should sit shivah on Shushan Purim, the Remah rules that one should not. And Rav Soloveitchik said that, should he be asked to pasken the question, he would follow the opinion of the Remah. But he himself could not do otherwise than sit shivah on that day. Sitting shivah was the only way he could express himself that day – psychologically he could not do otherwise.
It is impossible to imagine that the Rav’s uncle, R. Isaac Zev Soloveitchik, would have ever consciously allowed his emotions to influence how he decided halakhah. See e.g., here where I write: “Another such example of this is the report that when one of R. Velvel’s sons died shortly after birth, and the family was crying, he was insistent that they stop their tears, since there is no avelut before thirty days.”
[12] (Ma’aleh Adumim, 2015), p. 512.                                                           
[13] R. Menahem Azariah of Fano even states that one can ignore a conclusion of R. Samuel Di Medina as he was angry when he wrote a particular responsum. See She’elot u-Teshuvot ha-Rama mi-Fano, no. 109.
                                                                                              
ואין לחוש לדברי הר"ש די מדינה שכתב ההפך מזה, כי נראין הדברים מתוך התשובה שבא לכלל כעס עם אחד העם שהיה מנהיג כך והוא מוחזק בעיניו שהיה עושה כן להתיהר ושלא לש"ש.

On the other hand, see here for the following story told by R. Eliezer Melamed in which R. Zvi Yehudah Kook turns his father into a religious robot, completely lacking any natural emotion.

פעם ליווה אבי מורי את הרצי"ה בלכתו מהישיבה לביתו, ואז סיפר לו הרצי"ה שלאחר פטירת הרב חיים עוזר גרודז'ינסקי מוילנא, קיימו לזכרו אזכרה בירושלים. אחד הספדנים אמר בתוך דבריו, שאצל רבי חיים עוזר האהבה לישראל לא קלקלה את השורה, והוא אהב את מי שצריך לאהוב. ומתוך דבריו נרמזה ביקורת על מרן הרב קוק, שנפטר שנים ספורות לפני כן, שכביכול אצלו האהבה קלקלה את השורה. דברים אלו ציערו וקוממו את הרצי"ה. זמן לא רב אח"כ התקיימה האזכרה השנתית של מרן הרב קוק, ואז הזכיר הרצי"ה את המשנה בברכות (לג, ב): "האומר על קן ציפור יגיעו רחמיך . . . משתקין אותו". וזאת משום שהוא תופס את מידותיו של הקב"ה כאילו יש בהן חולשה אנושית של רחמנות שחורגת ממידת הדין והצדק, ואילו האמת היא שגם רחמיו של הקב"ה הם גזרות מדויקות. וכך הוסיף הרצי"ה: הצדיקים הגדולים ההולכים בדרכי ה', הרחמים שלהם ואהבת ישראל שלהם אינם רגש אנושי שסובל מחולשה וטעות, אלא הם גזרות הנובעות מעומקה של תורה. וכל מי שאומר על הצדיקים שמידותיהם רחמים – "משתקין אותו"! וכך חזר כמה פעמים ואמר כלפי אותו ספדן "משתקין אותו"!

[14] For the founding of Agudath Israel of America and its first convention, see Aharon Rakeffet-Rothkoff, The Silver Era in American Jewish Orthodoxy (Jerusalem/New York, 2000), pp. 162-163.
[15] If they started putting individuals in herem, one of the questions that would be raised is does the banned person’s spouse and children also have to abide by the herem. It is hard to see how a couple could remain married if that was the case. This matter is actually discussed by R. Solomon ben Adret, She’elot u-Teshuvot ha-Rashba ha-Meyuhasot le-Ramban, no. 266. He informs us that R. Abraham ben David (Rabad) did not think that a wife has to observe the herem (we don’t know what he thought about the children). However, the Rashba disagrees and states the wife is indeed obligated to observe the herem.
[16] Nedarim 50b.
[17] She’elot u-Teshuvot ha-Radbaz, vol. 7, no. 50.
[18] See She’elot u-Teshuvot Maharam mi-Padua, no. 73.
[19] See Yakob Boksenboim, ed., Parashiyot me-Havai Yehudei Italyah ba-Meah ha-16 (Tel Aviv, 1986), pp. 29ff.; Nahum Rakover, “Shikulim be-Anishah: Hatalat Ones ke-she-ha-Avaryan Alul la-Tzet le-Tarbut Ra’ah o le-Hishtamed,” in Yitzhak Alfasi, ed., Ha-Ma’a lot li-Shelomo (n.p., 1995), pp. 367ff.
[20] R. Amnon Yitzhak actually spoke about Mizrachi’s statement before anyone else (someone obviously fed it to him). This youtube video was put up on October 25, 2015, two months before Mizrachi’s statement became an international scandal.


After the controversy broke, I looked around a bit and found that from a religious standpoint, Mizrachi has said something regarding the Holocaust that is much worse than what he was called to task over, as his comment defames many great rabbis. In the video below he has the chutzpah to think that he knows why so many tzadikim were killed in the Holocaust. He explains – I hope you are sitting down –  that they were not really complete tzadikim, and he identifies their supposed flaw. On the other hand, he states that the complete tzadikim were saved (and he makes the ridiculous statement that R. Aaron Kotler was a kiruv activist in Europe). Has anyone before Mizrachi ever made the appalling statement that survival of the Holocaust is proof that Rabbi X was more righteous than Rabbi Y who was murdered?


Contrast what Mizrachi said with what R. Jehiel Jacob Weinberg, a survivor of the Holocaust, said (Seridei Esh, vol. 1, p. 1):


רעדה תאחזני ובושה תכסה את פני לבוא ולספר על הנסים והנפלאות שנעשו עם אזוב קטן כמוני, אשר לא אדע במה לתלות נס-הצלתי, בוודאי לא מזכות יתירה, אלא ממיעוט זכות להמנות בין מקדשי השם הגדול והנורא


The only explanation R. Weinberg could give as to why he was miraculously saved was that he was not worthy enough to die al kiddush ha-shem.


In my Torah in Motion classes on R. Elchanan Wasserman I discuss the false claim that R. Elchanan returned to Europe “to die with his students." I don't know how this yeshiva myth arose. R. Elchanan left the United States in March 1939, more than five months before the German invasion of Poland. He didn't know what was coming and would never have returned to Poland if he did. (R. Elchanan's son, R. Simcha Wasserman, is reported to have made this exact point. See R. Ari Kahn's post here.)


[21] Yaskil Avdi, vol. 8, p. 200. R. Hadaya was also a kabbalist but surprisingly he makes an obvious mistake, ibid., p. 97, as pointed out by R. Meir Mazuz in his just published Darkhei ha-Limud, p. 7. R. Chaim Vital, Sha'ar ha-Gilgulim, hakdamah 34, states:


והנה משה תחילה היה הבל בן אדם הראשון ואח"כ נתגלגל בשת ואח"כ בנח ואח"כ בשם בן נח


R. Hadaya writes:


הרי לך דעם שמשה היה אחרי כמה מאות שנים, מזמן הבל ושת ונח ובנו שם, עכ"ז נתגלגל בהם


According to R. Hadaya, what R. Vital is saying is that Moses was reincarnated into Abel, and then into Seth, Noah, and Shem, even though Moses lived many years after them. This would be a great mystery if R. Vital had said it, since how could a person be reincarnated into someone who lived before him? Yet this is not what R. Vital said. If you look at the quotation from Sha'ar ha-Gilgulim you can see that its point is that Abel was reincarnated as Seth, and then Noah, and then Shem, and in the end came Moses.

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