Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Where The Threat Comes From

It's no secret that most non-religious Jews in the Western world are either overt leftists or lean in their political and social beliefs to that side of the spectrum.  One can suggest many reasons for this.  Perhaps it's because for many centuries the political and religious right were the great enemies of our nation, culminating in the rightist fascism of Europe in the last century that brought us the Holocaust.  Perhaps it's because leftists, in their drive to build a more tolerant and inclusive society provided more opportunities for Jews to integrate into their surroundings.  Or it could be that the left's traditional emphasis on helping the poor and disadvantaged struck a cord with the pintele Yid present in even the most assimilated Jew's heart and created a sense of connection.  For whatever reason this bond between Jews and the left has been long and enduring.
It has endured even as the world has changed and the left has become the dedicated enemy of the Jewish nation and its values while the right has metamorphisized into our allies.  Look around you today and you see one thing clearly: the vast majority of the left, save some remnants from more intelligent days, hates Judaism and Israel.  The right, save some remnants from fascist times, sees Judaism and Israel as a valuable ally of Western civilization.
However political beliefs are hard to change.  A Jewish community that has seen the Democrats in the US and the Liberals in Canada as their natural representatives seems very slow the change in the face of leftist hostility dating back over the last forty years.  Look at the hostility displayed by the Obama administration towards Israel (except in the months preceding an election) and compare that with polls that show that the majority of non-religious Jews will still vote for him and one can only be amazed at the naivete on display.  Nowhere is this dichotomy more obvious than in San Francisco today, as Dennis Prager notes:

If the most left-wing major city in America starts arresting Jews who have their children circumcised there, some American Jews might awaken to the threat to Jews posed by the left. Obviously, San Francisco's already existing bans on toys in Happy Meals, on soda in city-owned places and on plastic bags, and the city's proposed ban on the sale of pets, even goldfish, have not moved many Jews (or non-Jews) to begin wondering whether left-wing governance is dangerous. But perhaps a ban on circumcision will.
Of course, not everyone who is on the left — and certainly not the traditional liberal — is an enemy of the Jews. But, aside from Islamists, virtually all the enemies of the Jews are on the left.
The worldwide campaign to delegitimize Israel (i.e., to pave the way for moral acceptance of Israel's destruction) is virtually all on the left. Universities in America and elsewhere in the Western world, as well as the mainstream news media outlets around the globe, are all dominated by the left. They drum into their students', readers', listeners' and viewers' minds that Israel is one of the worst societies on earth.
The anti-Israel propaganda on the left is so great and so effective that according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, "Many of the youths who survived the (Norway) massacre said they thought the killer, dressed as a police officer, was simulating Israeli crimes against Palestinians in the occupied territories."
Yet, most American Jews still walk around thinking that Christians and conservatives are their enemies when, in fact, they are the best friends Jews have in the world today. From the present conservative Canadian government, which is probably the most vocal pro-Israel country in the world today, to every major conservative talk-show host in America (including the fiercely pro-Jewish and pro-Israel Glenn Beck, who has been libeled as an anti-Semite), to the leader of Holland's Party for Freedom and member of the Dutch parliament, Geert Wilders (one of the most eloquent pro-Israel voices in Europe today), to The Wall Street Journal's editorial page — the right is where the Jews' friends are.
What will it take for this generation of Jews on the left to realize what Arthur Koestler, perhaps the most prominent Jewish leftist of a previous generation, came to realize: namely, that leftism is "the god that failed"? Will it take a San Francisco ban on the oldest practice of the Jewish people? The City of Berkeley declaring Marines "unwelcome intruders"? PETA arguing that there is no moral difference between barbecuing chickens and cremating Jews? The ostracizing of the Jewish state from the world community by institutions dominated by the left?

One of the greatest features with the Jewish national psyche is that we are an am k'shei oref, a stiff-neck people.  At times it has been detrimental.  Read the narrative portion of Navi and you quickly see the stubborn tendencies our ancestors had in disobeying God and the laws of the Torah despite repeatedly being shown in no uncertain terms that there was no benefit to such rebellion.  This inflexibility is still present today.  Who is unfamiliar with the saying "Jews always leave a country the day after they should have?"
On the other hand being stiff-necked is exactly why God chose us. Throughout repeated exiles, challenges and attacks we have maintained our connection to God and Torah despite all the obstacles placed against us. No movement, religion, nation or philosophy down to modern times has displaced that position held by the faithful remnant of our nation.  Oppressors have come and gone but we, the people of God and Torah remain.
As Prager asks, what will it take for the less enlightened but equally stubborn portion of our nation to figure this out?

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Authors or Voices

There is a famous agaddah that tells us that our ancestors saw God both at the splitting of the Red Sea and the Giving of the Torah at Sinai.  At the sea, we are told, they saw Him as a mighty man of war.  At matan Torah they saw him as a wise elder.
Recent news of an Israeli computer program that identified multiple styles in the Bible that might have been written by a number of authors has been seized upon by the usual crowd of atheoskeptics as "proof" yet again that the Torah was not given to us by God but rather was composed over time by a number of people or groups and that these various proto-books were later merged into a single entity, the Torah we have now, by someone who was either the laziest or most incompetent editor in recorded history.
Unfortunately that's not what the program shows.  As one article on the subject notes:

For academic scholars, the existence of different stylistic threads in the Bible indicates human authorship.
But the research team says in their paper they aren't addressing "how or why such distinct threads exist."
"Those for whom it is a matter of faith that the Pentateuch is not a composition of multiple writers can view the distinction investigated here as that of multiple styles," they said.
In other words, there's no reason why God could not write a book in different voices.
"No amount of research is going to resolve that issue," said Koppel.

Now it is well-known that every one of the so-called difficulties that proponents of the Documentary Hypothesis love to quote was addressed and dealt with by Chazal 1800 years before the field of Biblical Criticism was invented.
Multiple names for God?  Dealt with.  Repetitive narratives?  Dealt with.  Contradictions and different versions of the same events?  Dealt with.  For Biblical critics these are evidence for human authorship.  For believers they are evidence that the Torah was composed by God for the purpose of moral education, not just a good Saturday afternoon read.
What this computer algorithm does then is support Chazal's statement at the start of this post.  God, in and of Himself, is incomprehensible to us.  We cannot understand the idea of a being that exists outside of time so that not only every place but every time is simultaneously visible before Him.  We are therefore limited to understanding the way He interacts with us and as the Torah teaches, He does so in many different facets, just like the verse says: "And I appeared unto Avraham, Yitzchak and Yakov as God Almighty but by My name HaShem I made Myself not known to them" (Shemos).   A quick perusal of the relevant parts of Bereishis quickly shows that in fact the name HaShem does appear in the narrative so how to explain the verse?  The "voice" God used to speak to our Avos was through his K'el Shad-i aspect even though He might have been acting as HaShem.
It is not far-fetched to understand God speaking in one way to Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, when detailing the various sacrifices and their procedures, another when giving civil laws, another when detailing historical events.  All this algorithm proves is that God has interacted with us in many ways and because of our limited perceptions these appear in the Torah as different "voices".  This program, if anything, might enhance our understanding of the various moral lessons each section is meant to transmit to us.
If that's not clear enough, perhaps this message from someone involved in the whole process would help:

So does all this mean that we have proved that the Torah was written by at least two human authors, as the breathless reports claim? No.

First of all, as I noted above, our method does not determine the optimal number of families. That is, it does not make a claim regarding the number of authors. Rather, you decide in advance how many families you want and the method finds the optimal (or a near-optimal) split of the text into that number. If you ask it to split Moby Dick into two (or four or thirteen) parts, it will do so. Thus the fact that we split the Torah into two tells us exactly nothing about the actual number of authors.

Having said that, I want to temper any religious enthusiasm such a disclaimer might engender. First of all, with a few improvements to the method we could probably identify some optimal number of families for a given text. We simply haven’t done so. Second, the fact that – for the case of two families – the results of our method coincide (to some extent) with those of the critics would seem to suggest that the split the method suggests is not merely coincidental.

But, the deeper reason that our work is irrelevant to the question of divine authorship is simply that it does not – indeed, it could not – have a thing to say on that question. If you were to have some theory about what properties divine writing ought to have and close analysis revealed that a certain text probably did not have those properties, then you might have to change your prior belief about the divine provenance of that text. But does anyone really have some theory about what divine texts are supposed to look like? Several press reports about this work referenced the idea that “God could write in multiple voices”. I find that formulation a bit simplistic, but it captures the fact that any attempt to map from multiple writing styles to multiple authorship must be rooted in assumptions about human cognition and human performance that are simply not relevant to the question of divine action[8].

In short, our results seem to support some findings of higher Bible criticism regarding possible boundaries between distinct stylistic threads in the Torah. These results might have some relevance regarding literary analysis of the Torah. Taken on their own, however, they are not proof of multiple authorship. Furthermore, there is nothing in these results that should cause those of us committed to the traditional belief in divine authorship of the Torah to doubt that belief.

Doublespeak On Chld Abuse

Over the last few months there has been much mention of the position of the Agudat Yisrael on reporting of child abuse to secular authorities.  A consensus opinion, based on what was reported from a recent Agudah convention, was reported as "Always go and tell a rabbi first, even in cases where one is legally obliged to tell the authorities."
Naturally this opinion is problematic.  In many cases it might go against secular law.  The Agudah position might be understood to be "Ignore what the law of the land says".   In other cases a delay between teling the rabbi and getting permission to go to the authorities might result in further harm to the children.  Finally there is the prevalent concern that many rabbonim, afraid of the consequences of reporting a particular offender or of the negative image the community might suffer as a result of the reporting, might try to use their authority to sweep the matter under the rug.
Rav Avi Shafran's latest piece on the matter, the official clarification of the Agudah's position, is no solution to the problem.  Now, you have to give the guy credit.  No matter what, he stays on message.  Rome could be burning around him but if his masters on the Moetzes tell him that there's no fire that's exactly what he'll tell you even as the flames singe his beard.
In this case he's been given a difficult assignment.  The "Always go to a rabbi first" position is controversial, illegal according to secular law in many cases and not halachically necessary according to many authorities.  Given that this is the position of the Moetzes he has to present it in such a way to make it seem to be completely reasonable.  Unfortunately you don't have to read too deeply into his statement to note the obvious problem.
Point 1 is evidently put in there  to assauge our fears that the Agudah is telling those of use with mandatory reporting responsibilities to break the law and part 2 tries to make it sound like secular law is the lax one in this situation:
1. Where there is “raglayim la’davar” (roughly, reason to believe) that a child has been abused or molested, the matter should be reported to the authorities. In such situations, considerations of “tikun ha’olam” (the halachic authority to take steps necessary to “repair the world”), as well as other halachic concepts, override all other considerations.

2. This halachic obligation to report where there is raglayim la’davar is not dependent upon any secular legal mandate to report. Thus, it is not limited to a designated class of “mandated reporters,” as is the law in many states (including New York); it is binding upon anyone and everyone. In this respect, the halachic mandate to report is more stringent than secular law.
However, reading parts 3-5 one quickly sees past this smokescreen:
3. However, where the circumstances of the case do not rise to the threshold level of raglayim la’davar, the matter should not be reported to the authorities. In the words of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, perhaps the most widely respected senior halachic authority in the world today, “I see no basis to permit” reporting “where there is no raglayim la’davar, but rather only ‘eizeh dimyon’ (roughly, some mere conjecture); if we were to permit it, not only would that not result in ‘tikun ha’olam’, it could lead to ‘heres haolam’ (destruction of the world).” [Yeshurun, Volume 7, page 641.]

4. Thus, the question of whether the threshold standard of raglayim la’davar has been met so as to justify (indeed, to require) reporting is critical for halachic purposes. (The secular law also typically establishes a threshold for mandated reporters; in New York, it is “reasonable cause to suspect.”) The issue is obviously fact sensitive and must be determined on a case-by-case basis.
5. There may be times when an individual may feel that a report or evidence he has seen rises to the level of raglayim la’davar; and times when he may feel otherwise. Because the question of reporting has serious implications for all parties, and raises sensitive halachic issues, the individual should not rely exclusively on his own judgment to determine the presence or absence of raglayim la’davar. Rather, he should present the facts of the case to a rabbi who is expert in halacha and who also has experience in the area of abuse and molestation – someone who is fully sensitive both to the gravity of the halachic considerations and the urgent need to protect children. (In addition, as Rabbi Yehuda Silman states in one of his responsa [Yeshurun, Volume 15, page 589], “of course it is assumed that the rabbi will seek the advice of professionals in the field as may be necessary.”) It is not necessary to convene a formal bais din (rabbinic tribunal) for this purpose, and the matter should be resolved as expeditiously as possible to minimize any chance of the suspect continuing his abusive conduct while the matter is being considered.
Understand?  Yes, when there are r'glayim l'davar one may go straight to the police but only a qualified rabbi is able to pronounce whether there are r'glayim l'davar in the first place.  The "Always go to a rabbi first" position therefore remains in place no matter how Rav Shafran wishes to phrase it.
This position is wrong no matter how many "gedolim" support it.  It is based on a "circle the wagons" and "we don't need the outside world's help" attitude that is currently outdated and potentially dangerous.  As a peson with reporting responsibilities I have no hesitation to report to the appropriate authorities if I think a child, any child including a frum one, is in danger as is my obligation under the law.  Dina d'malchusa dina.  And common sense which seems to have been removed from Jewish law somewhere along the way.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Are They Starting To Realize

One thing the modern state of Israel has taught us is that you can't shove Judaism down people's throats.  Until the arrival of Moshiach the Torah observant community has a responsibility to increase observance in our nation but through kindness, positive example and education.  Forcing people to "do Jewish" does not create the desired result but rather the opposite - bitterness, hatred of Torah and alienation from its influence.
Unfortunately there are many in the right wing of the Chareidi community who either cannot or will not understand this basic point.  The same folks who refuse to acknowledge the Jewishness of the State scream and shout when that same State does anything they believe contravenes their values.
One ongoing example of this is the Karta parking lot in Yerushalayim, the site of endless Shabbos protests by members of the Eida Chareidit and their friends.  Initially these protests were large, noisy, violent and a great source of public chilul HaShem by Chareidim who thought calling secular policemen Nazis was the way to defend the sanctity of Shabbos.  As time wore on the protests started dying down until recent weeks when, for various reasons, they seem to have ignited again.  Yet even as this has happened it seems cracks are developing in the community as the leaders seem to realize what many of their followers choose not to:
Shabbat protests have returned to Jerusalem, but it seems that even the members of the Eda Haredit faction, which organizes them, are at odds over their necessity.

Shmuel Chaim Pappenheim, considered one of the faction's unofficial spokesmen, has slammed the decision to resume the protests against the operation of the Karta parking lot on weekends, claiming that most of the community members are against them.
On the other hand, the chairman of the Committee for the Sanctity of Shabbat is in favor of the protests and accuses the secular public of "bringing them upon itself".

According to Pappenheim, the former editor of the Eda Haredit's official journal, while in the past only the central stream of the haredi public was against the protests – now most members of the extreme faction oppose them as well.

He explained that Eda Haredit leader, Rabbi Tuvia Weiss, is almost the only one among the faction's rabbis and leaders who supports such protests, and that most of the participants do it in order to defend his honor.

Pappenheim says that only several dozen Eda Haredit members have been protesting against the Karta parking lot every Shabbat for the past two years.

This past weekend, following intense pressure, the Toldos Aharon Rebbe decided to lead the protestors for several minutes, and this prompted hundreds of his followers to join the demonstration.

"They nagged him constantly, also because of what happened at the slaughterhouse in Mea Shearim last week, and he agreed to go out and protest so as not to humiliate Rabbi Weiss," says Pappenheim.

"But in principle, the Toldos Aharon Rebbe – and many of the Eda Haredit members – doesn't appreciate these things. He understands that the lawlessness and desecration of Shabbat are not worth it."

Pappenheim believes that the desecration of Shabbat in places like the Karta parking lot, which are not located within or near haredi neighborhoods, is no reason for such a protest as the public has become more sober, and the influence of the radicals – even within the Eda Haredit faction, has significantly dropped
Now, there are obvious defects in Pappenheim's thinking.  Blaming the secular authorities who actually took several steps to limit the chilul Shabbos involved with opening the parking lot is like a rapist blaming his victim.  In addition, his blaming of the situation on radical elements contradicts the famous Daas Torah position of the Chareidi community when it comes to venerating their leadership.  Who's really in charge?  The Toldos Aharon rebbe or the lunatics that claim fealty to him?
In any community there will always be a group that believes itself to be the guardians of the purity of said group's ideology.  Hopefully the majority of the Eida Chareidit will recognizes the idiocy of endlessly antagonizing the secular population around them and some peace will return to the situation.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Guest Post by Boruch Clinton

Social Injustice: When Leadership Fails

Before reading this essay, it might be helpful to take a look at these passages from Isaiah: 1:17-27, 5:7-9; 10:1-3; 58:6-9 and 59:3-9
If there's only one thing that becomes abundantly clear from reading Isaiah's words, it is that God cares deeply about the suffering endured by the weak at the hands of Jewish society's rich and powerful classes. But why? Why is this such a key focus more than, say, the mitzvah to love your neighbor, or than the related but distinct mitzvah to avoid spreading slander? What is it that makes social justice into a deal breaker?
God's Moral Claims Against His People
To better grasp the problem of social morality from God's own perspective, let us enumerate at least some of the specific accusations that He, through the words of Isaiah, leveled against us:1
Deceptive commercial practices. We tried to pass lower-value, silver plated coins as sterling; we improperly diluted expensive drinks (like wine). (1:22)
Corrupt leadership. We tolerated or even appointed senior officials with connections to criminal gangs and whose main motivation was graft. The officials' constituents and their legitimate interests were the primary victims. (1:23)
Inaccessible courts. Courts and other institutions that should have provided advocacy or at least a fair forum for the poor, instead indirectly discouraged needy litigants from initiating court action (in part through the existence of complicated and intimidating procedures). (ibid. See Rashi)
Dishonest real estate practices. The powerful would use their wealth and influence to force weaker individuals to sell their property, often purposely buying adjoining properties and illegally moving boundary markers on multiple sides until what was left of the estate became too small to viably maintain. (5:8 - See Rashi)
Fraudulent documents. Through the drafting and signing of false contracts and documents, specifically the poor and helpless were deprived of their legal rights. (10:1-2)
Spending illegally obtained wealth. We used the proceeds of crime in (vain) attempts to buy our security through bribes paid to foreign powers. (30:12 - see Radak)
Bullying. Powerful and well-connected individuals abused their natural advantage over their weaker opponents by bullying them into silence as their cases were heard in court. The poor, unable to hire advocates of their own, were thus usually unable to properly stand up for what was justly theirs. (32:7 - see Daas Sofrim)
General oppression of the weak. The effects of financial and judicial abuse are depicted as forms of imprisonment for their victims (often, the poor are left trapped by very difficult circumstances, unable to break free of powerful bonds - Isaiah blames this on their oppressors). (58:6)
One should also see the Gemara (Shabbos 139a) which, based on Isaiah 14:5, sharply criticizes...
1It should be noted that each of these claims would appear to reflect real-world transgressions. This isn't a checklist of theoretical crimes we should avoid, but very real crimes that had, to at least some degree, a significant presence in Jewish life.
Jewish judges who allow themselves (םהינזחל לקמ) to be used by their staff and handlers in order to facilitate their corrupt schemes...
and prominent Torah scholars who strengthen and provide cover for the crimes of their corrupt relatives serving as judges (םילשומ טבש).
Alternatively (according to Mar Zutra), the verse could be referring to Torah scholars who support otherwise unqualified judicial candidates (רוב ינייד) on the mistaken assumption that they will consult authorities before rendering decisions in areas beyond their competency.
Working with each phrase from Isaiah 59:3 ("Your hands are stained with blood and your fingers with sin, your lips speak lies and your tongues crookedness"), the above Gemara then reports the opinion of Rabbi Shimon ben Lakeish:
"Your hands are stained with blood" these are the (crooked) judges
"your fingers with sin" these are the court scribes (who enable and perpetuate corrupt court decisions)
"your lips speak lies" these are the advocates2
"your tongues crookedness" these are the litigants (presumably the ones who initiate the corrupt court cases)
What is Social Justice?
Over and over again, as we have now seen, the prophet admonishes his people over their neglect for others - especially others left vulnerable by difficult lives. Clearly, the problem is more than just a relatively isolated weakness in Torah observance (as we might classify a failure to properly observe the laws of, say, kosher food), but stands directly and violently opposed to everything that a Jew is meant to be.
Overwhelmingly, Isaiah's rebukes are delivered in concert with the words "justice" and "righteousness" - קדצו טפשמ. Before properly understanding the larger subject, we should see if we can't achieve a better understanding of these words themselves.
The verb "shafet" (טפש) means to bring something to its proper place.3 Its noun, "mishpat" (טפשמ) is hence a process which seeks (to paraphrase Rabbi Hirsch) the satisfactory fulfillment of justified demands. In other words, a human being has a right to his lawful property, status and dignity. When he is illegally deprived of these possessions, he has the right to demand their return. The institution of mishpat - justice - is the tool through which his claim should be addressed.
The noun "tzedek" (קדצ), on the other hand, denotes the place where things belong. An act of "tzedaka" - righteousness - therefore, involves acting as one should; disposing of assets as God would have them disposed. Or, in Rabbi Hirsch's own words: "doing one's accord with the will of God...The fulfillment of the Torah...It takes into account the requirements, rather than merely the legal claims, of the person concerned."
Thus, mishpat acknowledges and promotes the legal rights of individuals when they come in conflict with each other or the state. While Tzedaka places the burden of Divinely-inspired perfection directly on the shoulders of each individual and each instrument of the state, regardless of the purely legal strengths or weaknesses of their opponents' claims.
These principles, tzedek and mishpat, are what we mean by the phrase "social justice." Both of these together - the sense of responsibility towards the rights of our fellow human beings and the sense of obligation to the morality of God's Torah - form the only reasonable foundation for a Jewish
2See Mishna Avos 1:8 (םיניידה יכרועכ ךמצע שעת לא ,רמוא יאבט ןב הדוהי)
3This discussion is drawn from "Collected Writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch" Vol IV, pp 69-70
community. Their absence is inherently corrupting of both communal and private life.
Now, in light of these tzedek and mishpat ideals, let's take another look at the prophet's particular criticism. Nearly all of the examples from our list above involve abuse of privilege: members of society's powerful classes seeking to enhance their own positions at the expense of the poor and weak. There can be no doubt that crime is wrong no matter who commits it and no matter who is the victim. The poor may no more expect a court to wrongly tilt justice towards them than the rich.4 But, nevertheless, Isaiah largely ignores the Robin Hoods of the Jewish world. While they, too, may be reprehensible thieves, they are not guilty of quite such a grievous form of oppression. Tzedek and mishpat are primarily the responsibility of the powerful. Of leaders.
Who constituted the powerful classes of Isaiah's world? Kings and government officials, judges, the wealthy, large landowners and Torah scholars5...anyone whose social standing allowed him some control over others and who could call on highly-placed allies when needed. These are the people who are most tempted by crimes of power and it is to these people that Isaiah's message of social morality is addressed.
At this point it is very important for us to stop and consider a serious problem. Among others, Isaiah charged the Torah leadership of his day (and perhaps of all generations) with what would, at best, amount to gross dereliction of duty. At worst, they were engaged in willful criminal collusion with some of society's worst elements - at the tragic expense of the community's most vulnerable individuals. How are we to understand this? Does the study of Torah at its highest levels have no moral impact on its students? Were that generation's custodians of our ancient tradition really such vile people?
No. And a thousand times no. We must always remember to evaluate a prophet's carefully chosen words in their greater context.6 First of all, there is no proof that all, or even significant numbers of the Torah scholars of that time were at any fault at all. Perhaps even one individual's descent into corruption would have warranted the kind of national introspection demanded by Isaiah. Secondly, many of the charges (like those based on 14:5) indicate weakness under pressure or naiveté rather than malevolence. Hardly admirable qualities in a leader, but nor quite such a breech of basic morality.
Most importantly, however, we must take into account the principle of social interdependence:
"The cow of Rabbi Elazer ben Azariya (was thought to have inappropriately been allowed to walk in a public place on Shabbos while wearing a decorative ribbon): Did he have only one cow? ...Didn't his annual tithe consist of 12,000 calves? It was (therefore) taught: (this cow) wasn't his, but belonged to his neighbor, and since he didn't rebuke (the neighbor), the cow is referred to as though it was his. (It was taught)...Anyone with the opportunity to rebuke his own household and doesn't, will be caught (i.e., punished) for (the sins of) his household. (Anyone with the opportunity to rebuke the citizens of) his city (and doesn't) will be caught for (the sins of) his city. (Anyone with the opportunity to rebuke the) entire world (and doesn't) will be caught for (the sins of) the entire Rabbi Chanina taught: why does it say (Isaiah 3:14) 'God in judgment will come (against) the elders of His nation and its ministers'? If its ministers sinned, what did the elders do wrong? Rather, say that the elders (will be punished) because they didn't rebuke the ministers." (TB Shabbos 54b and 55a)
A Torah scholar is, by definition, expected to provide a moral influence on those around him. The greater his scholarship, the more people he is to influence. If people living within his "range"
4see Rashi to Deut. 1:17
5For particular reference to Torah scholars and judges, see TB Shabbos 139a
6For more on this subject, see the chapter "The Accusing Finger - Eli's Sons: Understanding Sin in the Tanach" from my book "The Royal Prophet"
misbehave, it must be because the scholar failed to educate them through the visible moral example of his own conduct. Perhaps, in the privacy of his own home, he's done nothing wrong. But, after all, what was he doing spending all his time in the privacy of his own home? In Isaiah's world, privacy is a luxury reserved for the spiritually mediocre.
So even if the real criminals weren't learned Torah teachers, it's the teachers who will absorb the brunt of God's wrath for the crime. And if they're the ones being punished, we can be sure that they've somehow failed to live up to what's expected of them.
Why is Social Justice so Important?
What is it about injustice that seems to have captured so much of Isaiah's attention? Why does the very security and future of the Jewish people depend on the quality of their struggle to eliminate injustice? While all mitzvos are precious and fully binding on all of us, not many are given such overwhelming weight. What's the difference?
What does Isaiah himself say about this?
"And Justice falls back, and Righteousness stands at a distance. For Truth has stumbled in the street and Right can not come." (59:14)
"...And since the Truth has stumbled from the land, so (rescue for Israel by way of God's) righteousness and justice can not come from the heavens." (Rashi)
Every one of God's mitzvos carries an important moral message and plays its role in shaping the Jewish personality and community.7 But it would seem that the particular role played by social justice is to plant a strong attachment to truth deep in the personality of the Jewish people. If we - and particularly those prominent individuals who by rights should stand on the front lines of this battle - resist and instead pursue our private, short-sighted goals, then we have exiled truth from our midst. How then could God continue to support and nurture us? Isn't His very seal "truth"?8
The Gemara tells us of a similar consequence to a similar flaw:
"King Agripas (a decent, but genealogically unqualified Judean king who reigned towards the end of the Second Temple period) stood to accept (the sefer Torah for the special reading of 'Parshas Hamelech') for which the sages praised him. When he reached (in his reciting, the words) 'You are not able to place upon you a strange man' (i.e., that someone without a Jewish father could not be king), his eyes poured tears. They (the people) said to him 'Do not fear, Agripas, you are our brother, you are our brother.'"(Mishna, Sotah 41a)
"It was taught in the name of Rabbi Noson: at that moment, the enemies of Israel (i.e., sinful Jews) became deserving of destruction, for they had flattered Agripas. Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta said: From the day that the power of flattery took hold, judgments were corrupted, behavior was ruined and no man was able to say to his fellow (by way of honest rebuke): 'my deeds are greater than yours'" (Gemara, Sotah 41b9)
God will hold off His catastrophic punishments as long as there is still hope for the people's moral future. But once the truth itself becomes a stranger to both public and private discourse; once a man may no longer call crime by its real name, hope has run out.
7I think it's fair to say that Rabbi S.R. Hirsch's primary task writing his commentary to the Torah is to reveal just these messages.
8TB Sanhedrin 64a
9ףינחהל רתומ מ"הד הטוס תכסמל עבש ראב רפס 'ע
Significance of Social Justice in Jewish Life
If a wise man repeats something often, you can assume it is of great significance. Let's take a look at just how often and in which contexts the principle of social justice actually appears in Isaiah's words:
Israel's very identity is largely determined by the way they treat the weak: if victims cry out from under the burden of their abuse, the primary purpose of our national existence is called into question:
"For the House of Israel is a vineyard of God of Hosts and the man of Judah was planted there as His joy. He (God) hoped for justice, but instead (encountered) affliction; for righteousness, and instead (encountered victims') cries." (5:7 - see also Rashi to 3:9)
Justice is the key purpose - the raison d'être - of a Jewish monarchy (or any similar institution of governance)
"Behold, for (the purpose of) righteousness is a king crowned, and ministers rule for justice." (32:1)
The Jewish nation's security depends on the quality of public justice:
"Is this not the type of fast-day I choose: open the bonds (created by) lawlessness, release the ties (created by) injustice, set free those (who are) bound, all injustice remove. Should you not break your bread for the hungry and the lowly poor bring to your home? When you see the naked, you shall clothe him and turn not your eye from your own flesh. Then, like the morning, your light will break, and your healing will quickly blossom..." (58:6-8)
When will the solutions to your needs appear, bursting forth like the morning light? When - and only when - you have sufficiently cared for those victims of oppression and need. It is unlikely, however, that Isaiah could expect any individual on his own to effect the kind of widespread change needed to set right such vast injustice. Rather, this is probably a message aimed at an entire community. Or, better, every single community.
"For truth has stumbled in our streets." (59: 14)
"Since the truth has stumbled from the earth, even from the Heavens righteousness and justice will not come." (Rashi ibid)
Even God's moral guidance of our world depends on at least some minimal adherence to truth among His people. Without even that, we're on our own.
Neglect for justice can lead directly to national destruction. Here's a bit more from Chapter Five:
"(God) hoped for justice, but instead (encountered) affliction; for righteousness, and instead (encountered victims') cries...In my ears the Lord of Hosts (swore): will not many houses be desolate; large and good (homes) without occupant?" (5: 7, 9)
And another example:10
"Woe! Those who inscribe fraudulent contracts; who write dishonest documents. To divert the helpless from justice and to rob the poor of My people of judgment, so widows should be their pillage and orphans they would plunder. What will they do on the day of reckoning and for the destruction (האושְלו) that will come from a distance? To whom will they run for help and where will your honor (acquired through theft - Rashi) be abandoned?" (10:1-3)
Mitzvah observance
So many of our familiar and seemingly straightforward day-to-day activities in fact lose their meaning and purpose if the needs and rights of those less fortunate are ignored:
"Is this (i.e., what follows) not the type of fast-day I choose? Open the bonds of lawlessness, release the ties of injustice, set free those (who are) bound, all injustice remove." (58:6)
Fasting - something so many of us regularly do with so little thought - is primarily intended to focus our attention on the disadvantaged. It is about this mitzvah that the prophet chooses to make his point. But, bearing in mind our natural general tendency to allow observance to degrade into nothing more than empty ritual, we would be foolish to assume that it wasn't equally applicable elsewhere.
So Jewish practice, identity, society and destiny depend to some large degree on carefully ensuring that our communal institutions and lives are fair and just. There's no denying it: social justice is, indeed, a big deal.
What is Our Role?
So what are we to do?
For those of us who are neither major community leaders nor world-class Torah scholars, how are these prophecies practically relevant?
Here are some ideas that might get you thinking:
The first thing is to keep your own eyes (and pockets) wide open. Communities are improved through many small actions. If there are people around you who need support through a difficult period, don't turn away: be helpful. If even one of us is inspired by this discussion to come to the aid of even one extra needy person - as obvious as such behavior it might seem - then this whole exercise will have been worthwhile.
Isaiah himself suggests the next crucial step:
"Learn to improve (what is around you), seek justice, support the victim (of crime), judge the orphan, fight for the widow." (1:17)
Indeed, we must each "seek justice" in our own lives and communities. But it probably won't happen by itself. Seeking justice and sparking change requires skills that must be learned. Spend more time with the kinds of seforim that deal with these things and, perhaps, find older individuals who have experienced noticeable successes, seek their company and learn from them.
10See the Gemara Shabbos 139a for more on the relationship between corrupt Jewish leadership and national suffering. See also Collected Writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch vol. IV page 137 for an alternate reading of this verse.
Here's one that is perhaps a bit less obvious than you might think: make sure you are not part of the problem. Regularly subject your activities and relationships to some form of analysis,11 while giving special thought to the impact you might be having on those under your influence and power.
Now what should you do if you become aware of serious community-level oppression? Your first address should be the office of a significant talmid chochom who is also engaged enough in political matters to be considered an "insider" - someone likely to be privy to the community's hidden workings. He will be able to tell you if the issue is already being satisfactorily dealt with or if it is indeed an issue at all (perhaps the problem lay in your limited understanding of the affair). If the problem does turn out to be unsolved, it is quite likely that, assuming that you are a discreet and resourceful individual, the rav will advise you on an effective course of action.
It should be noted that regarding cases of dangerous criminal behavior, recent halachic literature suggests that one should immediately go to the local police and let those who have been properly trained and empowered take over.
Finally, it is worthwhile giving some thought to identifying oppression's modern face in the Jewish community. Is it school administrations which exclude students for ethnic or ideological reasons? Is it those who cover up and thereby enable crimes of abuse against innocent children? Is it those who set new, more elaborate standards for "frum" fashion and simcha consumption, thereby feeding rampant materialism within the Jewish world and pressuring those with more meager means to follow their example and suffer the consequences?
Perhaps this should be the subject of serious, objective research.
11This, in any case, is something strongly recommended by mussar seforim.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

The Spiritual Disconnect

As the Torah tells us repeatedly, living a life full of the performance of God's mitzvos, both ben adam l'Makom and ben adam l'chaveiro should be synonymous with living a life full of morality and decency.
As reality tells us repeatedly, this isn't true.
Forget Pesach hotels, $3000 sheitls and women leading kabbalas Shabbos services.  The biggest threat to Torah Judaism is the disconnect between a Torah lifestyle and common decency.
I'm not talking about terrible tragedies like the recent murder of a beautiful child in New York by a fellow frum Jew.  Such events, awful as they are, do not represent the norm of frum behaviour.
Rather it seems that nowadays theft, inappropriate fondling of students in yeshiva, rioting and attacking Israeli police officers and never-ending chumros are the norm of frum behaviour.  A man like Shlomo Rubashkin is convicted of dozens of criminal offences and the response from the frum world is that it doesn't count because it wasn't before a beis din and now he's entitled to pidyon shevuyim.  A prominent rav goes around and tells people that cheating on income tax is okay.  This is clearly not what God had in mind when He gave us the Torah and promised us that our sterling character and righteous actions would make us the envy of the nations of the world.  How is it that modern Torah Judaism has veered so far off the derech that it claims to be the sole proprietor of?
Rav Micha Berger, on his excellent blog, dealt with this from one angle a few weeks ago. He brings excerpts from an essay by Rav Shlomo Wolbe and suggests something quite powerful:
 “This approach is entirely alien to frumkeit.” The frum person is the one who makes sure to have Shabbos guests each week, but whose guests end up feeling much like his tefillin — an object with which he did a mitzvah. A person acting out of frumkeit doesn’t love to love, he loves in order to be a holier person. And ironically, he thereby fails — because he never develops that Image of the Holy One he was created to become. The person who acts from self-interest, even from the interest of ascending closer to G-d, will not reach Him.
I would like to suggest that the entire structure of learning today, those priorities that characterize learning in yeshivos, those priorities that a frum Jew is expected to make when choosing which sefer to pick up and which to ignore, are wrong.  Simply wrong.
Years ago when my learning was at a much simpler level I was invited by the local Lubavitch shaliach to learn Talmud.  He had noticed my interest in Torah subjects and thought it would be of benefit for me to crack open the big books on the shelf and see what was in them.  I asked my father what he thought and he replied "You're not ready.  You haven't read past the end of Devarim in the Bible.  You haven't finished building the first floor of the building and you want to pick furniture for the upstairs?"
For my father, while Talmud is an indispensable book, Navi is even more important.  Like most folks he divides the Navi up into the narrative vs. the fire-and-brimstone sections.  The narrative section he holds to be important for historical purposes.  Jewish history did not end with the death of Moshe Rabeinu, a"h.  It went  on.  God's plan for creating a nation on Earth to represent His will continued through until today and the early parts of Navi are critical for seeing how this plan played out during First Temple times.
But even more important for him was the second section, principally the three major prophets: Yishiyahu (Isaiah), Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) and Yechezkel (Ezekiel).  For him their books were the essence of Judaism.  You could learn what to do as a Jew from Talmud but if you wanted to learn what Judaism was, what God really wanted from us and how to behave in a pleasing way in His eyes you had to learn Navi.
Now it's no secret that the study of Navi is not exactly encouraged into many modern yeshivos today.  There are reasons for that, none of them good.  One of them is because of the emphasis placed on Biblical study by the early Chrisians.  Another is the emphasis on the study of the narrative parts of the Bible by secular Zionism as it sought to develop a political connection to our ancient history but without any of the necessary religious elements.  As a result, in much of the religious community outside Modern Orthodoxy and Religious Zionism there is little to no direct study of Navi.  Yes there's the haftaros and the referencing from the Gemara to verses within the book but in general the average Orthodox student gets a limited view of Navi, both the narrative and prophetic sections and no real understanding of them.
This is where I think things have gone so terribly wrong.
As I heard from a Rav at a conference a couple of weeks ago, there is one big problem with Talmud study - God is not an indispensable part of learning.  Have you ever stopped to consider how infrequently He actually shows up in the text?  And if you remove the aggada portions, how rare His name comes up?  One could learn pages and pages of the 3 Bava's and never encounter Him.  If our entire existence is to build up to a constant awareness of His presence, to feel Him in our hearts and souls all the time, how is this possible?  One  might conclude that a lack of passion is the problem, that Talmud and halacha are studied for intellectual purposes without the requisite emotion necessary for dveikus but that would be wrong.  A person can be passionate about intellectual pursuits.  He can love learning without ever bringing God to mind once.
This is why we have created a society that seems to obsess over all the externals of Jewish behaviour while ignoring the internals.  We judge a person by the kippah on his head or the colour of his shirt, not the passion he feels for God or how much he values his fellow human being because he too is a product of the Divine.  We worry about whether we waited 6 hours after meat but not if we didn't treat the guy next to us on the bus, Jew or non-Jew, with enough courtesy.  We are sure to hold our little fingers up during hagbah but it never occurs to us to check if by doing so we're obscuring the view of the guy sitting behind us.
One of the repeated themes of Rav Dessler in his Michtav miEliayhua is the concept of giving and taking.  Put simply (maybe way too simply) God is the ultimate giver.  After all He has everything and therefore there is nothing we can offer Him in terms of possessions or wealth.  If we say "Blessed art Thou" we do not change His essence.  He was perfect before we said the berachah and He is unchanged and perfect after it.  The only thing I can give Him is my obedience to His laws and will.
If God is the embodiment of perfection then it means that the more one gives the more one approaches perfection.  As I just noted, there is only one thing I can offer God and thus by doing my best to observe bein Adam l'Makom I have given as much as I can in that direction.  How then do I continually strive to further my quest for spiritual growth?  It must be through bein Adam l'chaveiro which means that giving to my fellow man is the path towards those spiritual heights.
This requires a complete rethinking of what he consider to be frum behaviour.  Frum behaviour today really means being medakdek in bein Adam l'Makom.  A man who drives to shul on Shabbos but who is meticulous in his business dealings and gives tzedakah any chance he gets is not defined as frum.  In contrast, the guy who walks to shul in the blazing sun wearing a black hat and black woolen suit but who is embezzling from his business and shortchanging his customers is frum.
How many shuls out there restrict aliyos on Shabbos to those folks who are shomer Shabbos?  How many require honest in business?
(And why do I keep harping on business?  Because there are two main sins the Torah describes as a toevah: homosexual intercourse and cheating in business.  We see fire and brimstone protests against homosexuality in the frum world.  When was the last time you saw such passionate outrage against cheating in business?)
So how to describe the other person, the guy who drove to shul and wasn't given an aliyah?  Perhaps he's not frum but he certainly sounds ehrlich.
But here's the problem: the word frum should not be separate from ehrlich.  Frumkeit and ehrlichkeit should be the same thing.  Yet today we see that they're not.  Heck, some days it feels like they're mutually exclusive!
And this bring us back to the problem I have with today's learning.  Learning Talmud will make you frum.  It will inspire you, it will guide you, it will show you the foundation of our laws and traditions.  On the other hand, learning Navi will make you ehrlich.
"Hear the word of HaShem, O chiefs of S'dom; give ear to the teaching of our God, O people of 'Amorrah: Why do I need your numerous sacrifices? saith God.  I am sated with elevation offerings or rams and th fat of fatlings, the blood of bulls, sheep and goats I do not desire.  When you come to appear before Me, who sought this from your hand to trample my courtyards?" (Yishiyahu 1:11-12)
From the great prophets we learn that our ancestors were very precise about certain things.  They were sure to bring their sin offerings... after they sinned.  They worshiped their idols in private and then publicly showed up in the Temple... to cover their bets.  They lead lives of immorality all the while convinced that God would never allow His Temple to be destroyed which meant that they were safe no matter what they did.  Why does Yishiyahu call them after S'dom and 'Amorrah?  Those two cities were famous for their wealth and their incredible selfishness.  An outside looking in would see a well-functioning society where people prospered as long as they didn't get into trouble and need help getting out of it.  The Jew who was generous in bringing his sacrifices to the Temple and then went home and mistreated his servants was no different even though on the outside he sure looked frum.
The Talmud itself tells us that one of the reasons for the destruction of the Second Temple was that people did not make the blessings over Torah study.  We know there was a tremendous amount of learning.  The people stood beside the sages of the Mishnah, some of the greatest Jewish minds that ever lived, but they disconnected God from daily life.  They would learn but it wouldn't change them.  They would practice in as frum a manner as possible but there was nothing ehrlich about it.
It is my opinion that learning Torah means not just knowing whose ox goared whose or what percentage of the crop goes into terumah.  It's about learning to become a giver, not just to God but also to our fellows, Jewish and gentile.  Its about using the learning we do to make us better people, not simply to go through the motions and then sit back and check off the items on the list.
Yes, Talmud is crucial for the Jew to know but Navi is as well.  A person should not see his learning as complete until he has not only learned the words of Chazal but also Nazal.
When you put tefillin on you should feel closer to Him. When you smile at a stranger on the street and it leaves a positive impression you should also feel closer to Him.  More than anything though, we should all of us strive to be the best people we can because that's what He wants of us.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Reasonable In A Different Reality

Years ago a cousin of ours was sitting at our dinner table and began to opine on the situation in Israel at the time. Back in those days there was a great deal of condemnation for Israel for its supposedly illegal occupation of Yehuda, Shomron and 'Aza along with its unwillingness to accept the claims of an invented nation of squatters on those land.  (Wow, how times have changed)  Parroting the politically correct line she noted that it would be only just if Israel were to immediately withdraw from all territories conquered in the 1967 war and give money and efforts to the new Arab state that would suddenly spring into being in Yesha.  After all, it was "their land" and Israel had "stolen" it from them.
My father, who has spent years reading extensively on this subject, asked this cousin some basic history questions about Israel, all of them relating to the last (now) 120 years.  When she couldn't answer any of the questions, my father told her she shouldn't talk about things she knows nothing about.  Huffing indignantly she reminded him that she had a PhD in chemistry!
"And how does that qualify you to talk about history?" my father asked.
I am always reminded of this story when I hear rabbonim who are otherwise quite educated in Torah talking about science.  Now, at some point all of us have a unconscious bias towards things we know little to nothing about.  We assume that there must not be much to know or that the material would be easy to understand from a few sound bytes.  Overcoming this bias is so important in making objective decisions about complex topics or even knowing when not to opine about a subject.
Science is incredibly complicated.  Its parameters include literally all of existence from the smallest subatomic particle to the entire universe and all that God saw fit to stick in it.  It has its own specific terminology in which words which, to a layperson, might have another meaning have a very specific one when uttered by a scientist.  In many ways this is similar to Torah, another incredibly complex, expansive and all-inclusive system of thought and knowledge.  Here's a relatively simple example: melachah, when used by the Torah and Talmud does not simply mean "work" or "laborious work" but productive work related to the 39 categories of melachah as defined by the Mishnah in Shabbos.  Bringing a heavy backpack full of books to the nearby shul 45 minutes away would be classified as work in the generic sense of the word but, assuming there's a valid eiruv, it's not melachah.
Here's another example: the word "theory" in layspeak means "a proposed explanation whose status is still conjectural, incontrast to well-established propositions that are regarded asreporting matters of actual fact."  On the other hand, in science it means "a more orless verified or established explanation accounting for known factsor phenomena."  When we says that we theoretically believe that it might rain tomorrow we are using the former definition.  When we refer to the theory of evolution or relativity we refer to the later.
Unfortunately those trained in science always miss this subtlety or ignore it for the sake of making a point.  How many times has the phrase "Well evolution isn't proven, after all it's only a theory!" or something along those lines been uttered by folks whose knowledge of science is at the grade 8 level or lower (assuming the yeshivah they grew up in taught it at all)?
Rav Yaakov Menken, in his defence of Rav Avi Shafran's recent piece of fluff on evolution, clearly does not understand the difference between "theory" and "theory" which is a shame since I'm sure he does recognize the special legal significance of the world melachah and would happily mock a Reform Jew who says that he observes Shabbos by driving to the golf course because "that ain't work!"  His piece, a response to Rav Natan Slifkin's response to Rav Shafran's piece, fails in the same way Rav Shafran's did originally. (How curious that Rav Menken didn't bother attacking my review as well.  Ah notoriety, you elude me yet again!)
His first stumble is right out of the gate in his first paragraph:
Unfortunately, he misrepresents what Rabbi Shafran had to say, which was entirely reasonable — and on target
As both my piece at Rav Slifkin's showed, Rav Shafran's piece was only reasonable and on target according to Cross Current's unique definition of those words.  

He then goes on to make a beautiful statement showing that he knows nothing about what atheism is:
Bias is found in the beholder, not the concept, and thus the same facts should rightly be said as follows: “you can find devoutly religious people who do or do not believe in evolution, but to a one, atheists profess belief in evolution.
Here's the problem: atheism is not a unified movement with a guiding set of principles that all its members must adhere to.  It is simply the belief that there is no Creator of the Universe out there looking down on us.  One can believe in God and, chas v'shalom, deny Matan Torah or any of the other events recorded in the Bible. An atheist also does not have to "believe" in the theory of evolution.  He could believe that the universe magically popped into existence 5 minutes ago complete with fake memories and fossils to convince everyone that it's ancient.  But he could also believe in God and hold that way as well.  It just so happens that the majority of non-believers happen to feel that the theory of evolution is what best accounts for the current state of the world around us and accept it in the absence of any better or more reasonable explanation.  However, many devoutly religious Jews also accept the theory of evolution as the method which God used to create and develop life on Earth.  It is not against the Torah to believe in evolution as the Cross Currents gang would have you believe.  Rav Menken is again using a black and white argument to maintain his opposition to a Torah viewpoint that contradicts his own and therefore, in his eyes, must be illegitimate.

Rav Menken also demonstrates some difficulties in contradicting himself:
So I do not understand how he can write that “those who oppose evolution inevitably subscribe to a religious worldview in which evolution is theologically problematic at best and usually entirely unacceptable.” To the religious person, it would really make no difference at all if the evidence for Evolution was absolute and overwhelming — because theMedrash says that everything looks as if it were created naturally. Adam was physically a 20-year-old at the moment of his “birth.
Right, he does not understand why Rav Slifkin feels some religious folks have difficulties with evolution and then proves he is possessed of that same dismissive attitude by present two opinions from the Midrash as if they were the sole completely authoritative and only sources on the subject.  Is his knowledge of Torah really that narrow or does he perhaps wishes ours to be so that we'll be more compliant with his hashkafah?

Rabbi Slifkin claims that the antiquity of the universe is something that the “charedi community officially rejects.” This is one of the strawmen to which I referred. Yes, we believe the world is 5771 years old, however this may be defined (there are multiple schools of thought on this point). Yet I am unaware of even one Orthodox person with an education in the hard sciences who believes that, from a scientific perspective, the world appears to be 5771 years old rather than roughly 15 billion. Who are the “charedim who reject it?” I know that someone will comment with the name of someone, somewhere, because every rule has its exception, but do not ignore the issue at hand: if the charedim are “overwhelmingly, critically biased against any evidence supporting it,” as Rabbi Slifkin asserts, then why do they not reject the age of the universe as well? He fails to present any explanation as to why the age of the universe is accepted as scientific fact by the same people who reject evolution as wildly improbable. On the contrary — he pretends that Charedim reject the observed age of the universe, because the truth so flatly rebuts his argument.

There is so much to work with in this paragraph it's difficult to know where to being.  Now, it is important to distinguish between the "official" Chareidi line and the fact that there is some accepted variation on that line including the famous "each day is an era billions of years long" but there are also authorities (see Rav Nachum Eisenstein's famous invoking of Rav Eliashiv's name) who hold that we must take the first chapter of Bereshis completely literally.  Creation lasted 144 hours as we understand hours today.  Anything else is kefirah.  No   Then there is his "why do they not reject the age of the universe as well?"  This is either a lie or ignorance on his part.  For Chareidi thinkers, the universe and the Earth are the same.  Is there a Chareidi authority out there who believes that there was this empty universe just sitting there for billions of years when suddenly poof! Earth and everything around it suddenly appeared?  Rav Slifkin's point is, despite Rav Menken's obfuscation, completely legitimate.
Yet it is at the end that Rav Menken shows his ignorance of science:
Rabbi Slifkin correctly notes that a scientific theory is “a hypothesis corroborated by observation of facts which makes testable predictions.” He fails to mention that by this definition, evolution is no theory. He links to a post which purports to demonstrate that new species have been observed; they are, to a one, vacuous. Variations within species are nothing new, to the point that a Great Dane cannot interbreed with a Chihuahua. Biologists define species very narrowly, which is fine from a taxonomy perspective, but changes limited to these levels of precision are not evidence of the types of wholesale changes required by evolution.
First of all, a Great Dane and a chihauhau cannot mate because of size considerations.  Other breeds of dogs are successfully interbred all the time.  Has Rav Menken never heard of a pitbull?  Didn't he ever wonder where it came from?  Secondly, there is plenty of evidence in the fossil record for macroevolution and in the laboratory for microevolution.  Yes, the fossil record is incomplete and there are still questions that need to be answered but there is too much evidence to claim that every species on Earth that exists today (along with the ones we've wiped out over the last few centuries) popped into existence exactly as they are now exactly 5771 years ago.  The idea of progressive development of the species remains the best way to explain how things have developed the way they have.

Tens of millions of dollars are spent in labs at the world’s finest universities, attempting to accelerate the process, and their hands are empty. There is no evidence, after repeated testing, yet the wild conjecture behind all this research is still called not merely a theory, but accepted as proven fact. Excuse me?  They haven't managed to accelerate a tens of millions of years process into a few months?  My God, what are those scientists doing?  Sitting around, drinking coffee and occasionally flipping through a few pages of some thick books written in technical language specific to the field?  Oh hang out, that's kollel.  My mistake.
Rav Menken's defence of Rav Shafran proves two things: the idea that to be a "Torah-true" Jew you must believe in an untenable understanding of Bereshis is alive and well.  It also proves that you don't have to be a scientist to make important conclusions about it.  Once again, my father's quote, paraphrased:
"And how does that qualify you to talk about science?"