Rav Yaakov Hillel Outs the Charlatans

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Rav Yaakov Hillel, one of the acknowledged masters of Kabbalah, spent a few hours on Tuesday with the collected rabbinate of Los Angeles. Accepted in Israel in the widest circles – including Lithuanian yeshiva circles typically far removed from the (often) Sephardic redoubts of Kabbalistic interest – he is an intriguing mixture of elements not usually seen together. Born in India, he speaks English effortlessly. He runs not one, but several yeshivos of note. He demonstrates full grasp of, and appreciation for, the world of chassidus. His shiurim on Kabbalah are attended by many of the stellar names in Torah excellence. He carries himself with the demeanor of classic Sephardic warmth, gentleness, humility, and understatement – but he lets you know that he will brook no nonsense. He is famous in America for his “Faith and Folly,” an examination of the misapplication of Kabbalah, in all its manifestations. We expected him to be devastatingly critical of the phonies. We were not disappointed.

He was blunt and unsparing regarding the plethora of Kabbalah wannabes, the people who come to communities reading mezuzahs, or palms, or kesuvos. Lamentably, too many people who should know better, including Torah figures, flock to these charlatans for advice. Besides amounting to nothing more than hokum, he views them as fully flouting halacha, which forbids predicting the future. They accomplish what they do in some cases through accomplices who gather information, and in other cases through a combination of intuition and the careful study of chicanery. Even when this is not true, we should not be swayed by their success in knowing things that others don’t. He cited Derech Hashem of the Ramchal, that Hashem sometimes grants supernatural powers to people who have failed to get where they should – not as a reward, but as a punishment. These powers are not holy, but the opposite.

Why are people so eager to suspend their critical thinking and flock to the quacks? Too many have succumbed to the need for instant gratification typical of the rest of the world. Some people want instant coffee; frum Jews often want instant yeshua (solution of their problems), especially if it does not demand real change on their part. A person suffers a heart attack, and is triumphantly shown that one of his mezuzahs had a hole in the word levavecha – your heart. He concludes that the mezuzah is the problem, instead of realizing that the hole in the mezuzah is the effect, not the cause. The cause of the problem is the spriritual defect in this heart, which is then externalized as the defect in the mezuzah.

The charlatans, he said, can’t be real, because they never spent quality time learning Torah. How could they? At eighteen, they became Baba this or Baba that. (He knows of one who ran a brisk business stealing tefillin in his yeshiva days.) The real mekubalim were different. Baba Sali was the head of a beis din till he was seventy. He wrote important works on Choshen Mishpat. After a full life of Torah excellence, he moved on to giving berachos at the age of ninety. The best way to deal with those who come into town and ask to set up shop is to ask them to stop at the local kollel first and give a shiur. It almost always scares them away, because they are incapable.

Fooling people has become a brisk business, through the manipulation of PR machinery. People pay to have their photos printed alongside recognized greats, in order to increase their prestige among the populace. One unworthy candidate paid $250,000 to be the keynote speaker at the dinner of a major Torah institution, just to bolster his image.

Rav Hillel recounted how his own children proved the gullibility of their neighbors. They persuaded the janitor of their school to accompany them through the street, walking slowly and hunched over, with a white sheet wrapped around him. People – including many who should have known better – rushed over to kiss the hand of the obvious “holy man.”

Some would counter that the Kabbalah merchants may not be talmidei chachamim, but they are “hidden tzadikim.” When a friend of his took this position, Rav Hillel advised him to pull his children out of their yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs. Why bother with the learning? Let them stew in their mediocrity, and Hashem will reward them special powers He gives to the otherwise unaccomplished “hidden tzadik,” who remains hidden by carrying himself like a pathetic failure. This is a terrible error. Hashem does not give such hidden powers to a person whose external appearance and conduct is substandard. The hidden tzadik carries himself with dignity, but whose full worth is not appreciated by others.

Where can we find legitimate Kabbalah personalities? The first rule is to avoid those who get any kind of personal gain from their knowledge. He spoke of someone he knew who would never accept a dime, never a favor for his learning or his beracha. Someone whom this giant had touched positively tried to repay him by performing a favor without his knowledge. When he learned of it, he was so disturbed that he did not speak to his benefactor for decades.

When pushed for the identities of such people, he would not offer a single name. If you want a beracha, go to the most accomplished in Torah – Rav Chaim Kanievsky, Rav Elyashiv. People of their caliber are capable of miracles, but no one of lesser stature.

He struck me as having the best of two worlds: the embrace of serious study of Kabbalah that was part of the Baghdad from which came his great-grandfather, and the focus on the “meat and potatoes” of traditional Ashkenazi learning that he picked up in Gateshead and Ponovezh. He would, however, take issue with such a description, claiming that it misses the point entirely. The legitimate master of Kabbalah has no other option but to be a serious talmid chacham, the result of decades of study of Gemara and Rishonim. There is no other way. Separating the two orbits is artificial.

He didn’t enjoy pointing out all that has gone wrong. There was pain in his voice. Having seen Torah and Torah greats in their full glory, both in nigleh and nistar (the revealed and hidden parts of Torah), he is driven to rescue them from those who would infantilize or trivialize them.

It must be lonely at the top, but – to make use of the cliché – boy, what a view! We were enriched and uplifted to hear him share it.

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41 Responses

  1. Raymond says:

    I just finished reading Rabbi Adlerstein’s thought-provoking article, and wish to comment on it without yet reading the comments made by forty other people so far, only because it is now 11:38 pm and I need to go to sleep! But let me just say three brief points in reaction to the Rabbi’s article. Keep in mind that I am a mere amateur, certainly not a Torah scholar or anybody of any importance. My first point is, when I attend a Torah class or study a Torah book (always in English), I have a whole lot more trust in those classes/books which are strongly anchored in the Chumash itself. The more one lets go of that anchor of the actual text of the Torah, the more I start to wonder if that person’s ideas are really Torah based, or if he is just espousing his own ideas. How this is relevant is that I would therefore rather attend a Parsha class then a class that claims to be about pure kabbalah. Secondly, I never believed in blindly following any authority, no matter how saintly or knowledgeable the person might appear to be, secular or religious. My father often instructed me to definitely seek other people’s advice and perspective, but, in the end, to always make up my own mind. Third, I am suspicious of not just kabbalah but mysticism in general. There is an expression that one can judge the validity of an idea by the fruits it bears, and it seems to me that mystically based societies, such as those of the Far East, are plagued with superstition, sickness and poverty, while societies based on logic and reason, such as the United States, are characterized by health, prosperity, and scientific advancement.

  2. Joel Rich says:

    Yes and no :-)
    KT

  3. Dr. E says:

    Joel-

    IMHO, there IS something to going to a Gadol for a Bracha in a general sense. But to go for a bracha in the hopes for a miracle (regardless of stature) runs contrary to the dictum of ein somchin al haness. Of course, we have a tradition of brachot being helpful, even from a hedyot (ordinary person). At the risk of sounding heretical, I think that one of the main values of any bracha is that it helps internally validate the recipient’s situation and gives the person piece of mind. To the extent that there is subsequent benefit to the recipient’s davening and emunah, that’s great. Sometimes the situation will turn itself around and other times it was not merited. And if the Gadol can suggest things which are practical that will improve the person that’s great too.

    I don’t know if that addressed your question or not.

  4. joel rich says:

    Dr. E.
    Would you agree or disagree with R’ Adlerstein’s assertion concerning capability for miracles:
    “If you want a beracha, go to the most accomplished in Torah – Rav Chaim Kanievsky, Rav Elyashiv. People of their caliber are capable of miracles, but no one of lesser stature.”?

    KT

  5. Dr. E says:

    In getting at the heart of Rabbi Adlerstein’s post, there are a few reasons why people fall for the appeal of charlatans. Some are general to human nature and some are specific to the frum condition as it exists today:

    (1) People like the quick fix and instant access to answers. Communication is so fast today which facilitates this. “Google” has become a verb in our nomenclature. There is a compulsive need to know everything about anything, immediately. This carries over to cause and effect relationships. People need to know that it was X that caused Y and they need to know if quickly and definitively. And unfortunately, it is not only the “mekubalim” who are ready and willing to attribute a tragic event or situation to something specific. Rabbanim and others who are available to make statements which blame one group or another for something horrific are a dime a dozen. It makes for a great sound bite that can be instantly distributed with a few mouse clicks.

    (2) Episodes with “mekubalim” (legitimate or not) and the supernatural make for great stories! It’s boring to say that so and so was davening Shmoneh Esreh with great kavana for the refuah of a relative and the R.S.O. answered his/her tefilos. Or, so and so did teshuva for something and was zocheh to live his alotted years and get nachas from his children. But to be able to say that the person went to so and so to have his mezuzahs inspected, such and such was found and repaired, and the person got better makes for a great anecdote. To hear that, at the advice of Rabbi X who suggested some specific lifestyle change, things got miraculously better and everyone lived happily ever after—gets infinitely more attention around the Kiddush Club table than a sharp vort from the Kotzker or a kasha of Rabbi Akiva Eiger. Unfortunately, people are not satisfied with the mundane and need the superhuman for inspiration. That’s why the Artscroll hagiographies do so well. So and so learned Shas by age 5 and was doing mofsim by age 7, and he never did an aveirah since he was 2….That’s great stuff that evidently sells books and makes for great “divrei hisorirus” and “kiruv lectures”. Woe is to such a shallow generation which cannot be inspired by more simple acts of chessed that don’t make the headlines..

    Of course, anyone who has a more rational understanding of the world knows that problems are complex and even more complex and incomplete are their solutions. But that is the way of the world that Hashem built-in to the beri’ah. There are some things that despite all of the attributors and prognosticators, we will never understand fully now or ever.

  6. Baruch says:

    R. Menken,

    I read the Patriot evaluation article. It is far from conclusive on the issue of effectiveness, giving a range of 40-80% effectiveness, obviously with low reliability and a high margin of erro. Here is the concluding paragraph:

    “Five years after the Gulf War the debate over the effectiveness of the Patriot missile continues. However, the implications of the debate extend far beyond the ramifications of the Gulf War. The debate over theater missile defense and national missile defense as forms of BMD (Ballistic Missile Defense) is directly connected to the debate over the performance of the Patriot. This is why a serious and sober examination of the Patriot’s only combat performance must continue.”

  7. Baruch says:

    This is incredibly misleading. Read closely- it says apartments/other buildings AFFECTED. What exactly does that mean? Perhaps the power or water was out?

    In any event, I doubt either Eli or R. Menken are claiming that 39 scuds HIT 3,300 apartments. Such would truly be a nes (miracle) since SCUDs are not fragmentary. I fail to see a miracle in all of this. Iraq was launching this projectiles for the first time with no tests at Israel. The SCUDs are totally primitive, having no guidance system whatsoever, and were used by Saddam for mayhem purposes only.

    If you want to read a miracle in these tea leaves, that’s fine, but again, I think it’s time to order a copy of A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper. Misinterpreting “affected by SCUDS” for “hit by SCUDS” is a classic error in calculating probabilities. Heck, I was “affected” by the SCUDS too- it really bothered me to watch them on CNN here in the US.

    Again, we’re talking about 13 people dying as a result of 39 SCUDS.

  8. Charles B. Hall says:

    In case anyone needed more evidence regarding the success of the Kabbalah Center:

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/15516596/

    Warning: not-quite tznuit pictures on the page and links.

  9. Bob Miller says:

    I can’t recall an election in which the Jewish Press has had any influence whatsoever. This has not stopped them from trying to take credit at opportune moments.

    Since these races are pretty much foregone conclusions, this endorsement exercise is like painting the bullseye where the arrow has already landed.

  10. Yaakov Menken says:

    Baruch,

    I was in Israel at the time, and it was well-known that the U.S. Patriot missles were ineffective. Thus the Israeli Arrow program, designed to produce a much more effective anti-missile defense. It is even rumored that the single direct fatality from a Scud missile was caused by a Patriot that knocked the warhead off course but failed to destroy it.

    You initially dismissed the claim that 39 missiles might damage 9000 homes. Surprisingly, I think I agree with you on that — the UJC says approximately 3300 apartments were affected “in the greater Tel Aviv area” with many more in and around Haifa, but I think it more likely that there were 9000 residents in damaged apartments than 9000 damaged apartments.

    Nonetheless, that means 9000 residents, 3300 damaged apartments, 209 damaged beyond repair, 3100 people evacuated to hotels — and one, count him again, one fatality. You will find no parallel for this anywhere in the history of explosives, warfare and/or terrorism.

    During the war we were treated to a constant barrage of post-Scud survival stories. The brothers who suddenly decided to run and comfort an old lady, who herself decided to go comfort the young men. They met back behind their building… just as the incoming Scud destroyed both their apartments. Then there was the group of people who inexplicably ran to their old bomb shelter, rather than the new and fully-equipped shelter that had recently been completed. The latter took a direct hit and was destroyed. And finally, there was the fellow with more than 18 tons of rubble over him — only his head was out of the ground when they found him. He didn’t have a scratch on him.

    “There was no miracle?” You go right on believing in the church of random numbers if you wish — but don’t fault those who see a pattern.

  11. Charles B. Hall says:

    ‘Hey, how many American Jews are going to vote Democratic on Tuesday’

    A lot of us, if we follow the Jewish Press:

    http://www.jewishpress.com/page.do/19812/Endorsements.html

    I counted 47 Democrats and 2 Republicans getting their endorsement.

  12. Steve Brizel says:

    Noone disputes the fact that Tzadikim live and experience life on a completely different wavelength than we do. The Ramban in Parshas Mishpatim and in Bchukosai emphasizes that Klal Yisrael were never on a madregah whereby they could rely on miracles as opposed to engaging in hishtadlus such as seeking the best medical advice. The question remains whether the Pashute Yid should think that he can rely on these miracles in his or her own life. I previously mentioned that R A Z Weiss, a Gaon Olam (who is hardly MO/RZ in any manner) and the Baal Mchaber Sefarim Minchas Asher has written as a matter of Psak that one cannot use alternative medicinal remedies and be Mchalel Shabbos with respect to the same because they are completelty unreliable as a form of medicine. R Adlerstein’s comment is correct-while Tzadikim have a level of understanding and view of life that none of us will ever approach, those of us who are a long way from that level should respect and admire them but think twice before thinking that any or every rebbishe sgulah will automatically bring the desired results.

  13. Baruch says:

    “This is partly the reason why Israelis were scared of Scuds at the time.”

    And that’s also why Israel requisitioned U.S. Patriot missle batteries to shoot down most of the scuds. Sorry, but while the JPOST reported the facts, you were the one claiming a miracle. There was no miracle. Also, it’s interesting that right after commenting (#26)about “urban legends” to S., you go right back to the Scud miracle myth.

  14. Eliyahu says:

    Baruch, it’s not “Eliyahu said”. I was directly quoting a report from Jerusalem Post, and gave you the date of the article. Check it out for yourself if you want. You want to wave your hand and dismiss the reporting (including hard numbers) of the people who were on the scene. The damage that those missiles did is an empirical fact. Furthermore, in the Iran-Iraq war, 190 Iraqi Scuds launched at Teheran caused 2,000 deaths. That comes out to 10.5 deaths per missile. Iraqi missiles had a proven track record (190 data points is a pretty good data set). This is partly the reason why Israelis were scared of Scuds at the time.

  15. Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

    S. –

    We are going to have to disagree on this one.

    While just as disappointed, I am a bit more sanguine. My perceptions are different, both in fact and in interpretation.

    Unlike you, I can’t begin to count the number of times that I’ve seen and used suggested textual emendations, in standard works that sit on every yeshiva book shelf. The new annotated works of Rishonim routinely offer comparative textual variants, and point out where they solve problems. The story about R’ Dovid Tzvi Hoffman is still worth repeating, but many people have long ago absorbed its message.

    There are lots of reasons why people in all communities give up critical thinking. (Hey, how many American Jews are going to vote Democratic on Tuesday :-) ) People believe in UFO’s, in lots of bad religion, and in a host of panaceas to what Thoreau called the “quiet desperation” of life. Frum people ought to be more critical, and I fear that you may be correct that the opposite is true. We probably should do a piece at some point calling on readers to offer up their theories as to why so many people are not such astute thinkers. My suspicions are that there is so much distrust and bitul associated with Western values, that people lean in the opposite direction, usually falling over in the process.

    At the same time, I firmly believe that Meshech Chochmah IS a cultural force. So is the piece that Baruch cited, and a hundred more in other seforim. The incisive, critical dissection of material by Rishonim and Gedolei acharonim really does facilitate critical thinking in some (clearly not all) people in the Torah world. In the end, these folks will either triumph, or at least survive as an alternative voice within the Torah world.

    There is no doubting how much foolishness some parts of our community have gotten involved with. However, with time, I trust that the advocates for critical, rigorous thinking that are built into yeshiva study will have greater impact on the masses than the Western academy will have on its associated population.

  16. Eliyahu says:

    S. Perhaps the reason that some people in our culture fall for urban legends and all sorts of crazy voodoo alternative medicine is because this is going on in the general American culture.
    Apparently 37 percent of Americans believe in existence of ghosts and about a quarter think that UFOs are alien spaceships. (just google “how many americans believe in UFOs) We are affected by what goes on around us in the general society and not all of it so rational and scientific.
    On the other hand, not all alternative medicine is vooodo.

  17. Baruch says:

    Rav Adlerstein said: “Baruch – I’m not saying anything. I’m reporting what R’ Yaakov Hillel said. But for the record, I do believe that HKBH cherishes the tefilos of great tzadikim, and that those tefilos arouse Divine compassion.”

    Thank you for the important clarification. I think many readers would otherwise have taken from your reference the impression that you have in fact personally witnessed miraculous effects of berachos of the Gedolim you mentioned.

  18. Baruch says:

    Eliyahu said :“Iraq launched 39 missiles against Israel before the Gulf War came to a close. One man was killed by a Scud, and 12 people – mostly elderly – died of heart attacks or suffocation during missile alerts.”

    I would hardly call the fact that 1 in 3.25 (39/12) died in the SCUD attacks is a miracle, unless you were in Iraq launching these mis-guided missles. By the way, how do 39 missles “damage” 9,000 homes?
    Again, that sounds miraculous.

    I think your facts are off, but yet, the statistics are easily explainable in non-supernatural terms.

    By the way, if you are simply going to cite to numbers, you’d have a better “shot” at a miracle (pun intended) in noting the sheer amount of missles launched from Lebanon recently in proportion to the actual deaths. Or, the lack of death in Lebanon despite Israel’s use of tens of thousands of cluster bombs.

    I highly recommend the classic work “Innumeracy” or “A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper” (both by John Allen Paulos) which detail how intelligent, albeit not mathematically-inclined, folks fall for numerical fallacies (such as your Gulf War example above) all the time.

  19. Baruch Horowitz says:

    I would like to add that I am not knocking segulos, as the concept is in the gemera; rather, I merely pointing out imbalances in this regard, and that some people would benefit concentrating on “bread and butter” type of issues in Yahadus.

    For example, I was once part of a group walking down the steep mountain , on which sits the old Beis Hakevaros of Tzfas. I davened at the graves of the different mekubalim and tzaddikim(but did not immerse in the Arizal’s mikvah!). At the bottom, we were told that it is a segula, or an inyan, to walk seven times around a certain grave(Hoshea ben B’eri?).

    I had never heard of this practice, and I therefore did not do so. Now, if my lack of participation could have been construed as challenging this practice, I would have probably done so, despite my feelings on the matter. Also, if I had studied Kabbalah and had an appreciation for mysticisim, that would be somewthing else. However, since that wasn’t the case, I felt no need to do what the others were doing, merely because there is an “inyan” to do it.

  20. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “While authority is a bedrock of our religion, conditioning towards appeals to authority are, frankly, why people believe in the Babas and the red strings.”

    That’s precisely why I am concerned about imbalances as far as supra-rationality goes. Because I want people to believe in the authenticity of the Zohar, and certainly more fundamental parts of Judaism, that is why red strings can be problematic for rational types. From a pychological perspective–and to speak of psychology regarding emunah does not contradict the concept of free-will(see R. Dessler’s Nekudas Habechirah)– , we all have a finite degree of credibility. One certainly shouldn’t equate the thirteen ikkarim with belief in red strings, even if there is basis for them in a sefer.

    We should view our faith as something delicate and precious, and not strech our capacity for credibility. As an analogy, see Alei Shur, Volume II, page 296 regarding telling stories of tzadikim of dubious veracity, where Rav Wolbe states that this can be very harmful to Emunas Chachamim.

    It is especially relevant for people who have greater exposure to the secular world, although one may argue that even insular Meah Shearim types are potentially at risk as well(one might distinguish between not exposing people to certain topics, which has basis in the Gemera, versus actual distortions). There is also unfortunately an organization which missionizes charedim, and will counter any intellectual arguments which are not rigorous.

    I also agree with the article in Hamishpacha Magazine that quoted Rabbi Slifkin that distorting truth is unacceptable in Kiruv, based on the Yam Shel Shlomo. Yiddishkeit based on a lack of truth can only be detrimental for a person’s Yiddishkeit in the long run.

  21. S. says:

    >Why must it be that frum people are taken in by all sorts of counter-rational ideas, ranging from autistic children communicating by computer to produces messianic predictions in broken Yinglish? Why do people embrace the strangest forms of alternative medicine, not just as an adjunct to the conventional therapies, but sometimes even to their exclusion – even resulting in death of children? Why did so many people so uncritically jump on the Bible Codes bandwagon, when the vast, vast majority of experts (yes, the frum ones too) decided that the evidence didn’t support the hypothesis?

    R. Adlerstein, it isn’t a mystery. A culture that doesn’t endeavor to teach people to think critically will not think critically. Actually, I must emend that: it is interesting to note that we produce, for example, physicians who certainly know how to think critically. They could not function in their field otherwise. And yet I know that even physicians are susceptible to Bible Codes and to miracle workers, having seen it firsthand–because these touch on fields in which they were not taught to think critically, even discouraged. However, these physicians certainly do not embrace strange forms of alternative medicines. Why? Because in that field they must know how to employ their critical faculties and if they didn’t develop them then they would not have made it in that field.

    But they didn’t learn to think critically when they read the Golem cartoons in the Jewish Press when they were children, and that legend was reinforced by their teachers or rabbeim. They didn’t learn to think critically when fantastic–or even mundane–legends about all sorts of personalities were told as fact. It is considered a schtikle sophisticated to note that “not all of them” are true. Reb Moshe Feinstein’s Artscroll biography begins noting something his family said ISN’T true, that he finishes Shas 200 times. Why then is it in the biography? Not only that, a major American ra”m repeated that claim before 10s of thousands of people at the last Siyum Ha-shas. Critical thinking? And this particular rosh yeshiva is brilliant!

    Recently regarding the Monsey kashrut scandal a story begun circulating about the grandfather of the butcher who was also a butcher in Switzerland and lax in kashrut (specifically about accepting stunning) and a rav said that such a man will have a grandson who will also be careless in kashrut.

    Now, I haven’t seen sure rebuttal of that story. I do not promise that it isn’t true, even in whole. Strange things can happen. But surely the way that story was passed around, complete with conflicting accounts of who the oracular rabbi was, bore all the hallmarks of urban legend. I saw many people hear the story and nod their head. This story was even passed by a great rabbinic leader in a major American Jewish community. Should I assume he rigorously fact-checked it? Did he call the butcher’s bereaved ex-wife or sons to ask about their elter zeide?

    I think there is an inherent tension between desiring critical thinking and managing where those thoughts will lead. Surely it must be acknowledged that honest, critical thinkers do not always conclude what our traditions maintain and perhaps it is sometimes viewed as a greater good to inculcate credulity rather than incredulity, so long as the credulity can be managed (eg, it shouldn’t lead to a new Shabbetai Zevi episode or similar).

    I hope this isn’t beginning to sound like a diatribe, but please be assured that it is דברים שבלב.

    Ay, you’ll say, this gadol be-Torah was rigorous and that one you couldn’t fool him for a second. Someone once tried to defend a difficult passage in a Bertenura on a mishna to R. DZ Hoffman and had to employ mental acrobatics to do it. R Hoffman said “It’s a printer’s error. When you rise to shamayim you won’t be greeted by the Bertenura to thank you for defending him, you’ll be met by the zetser (typesetter) of the Romm printing press to give you a shkoyach for defending him

    That’s a great story. But hagaot ha-bach or the gra notwithstanding never once in my life have I seen such a thing, not in a shiur in yeshivot and not in laymen’s shiurim. I once told someone of some stature an interesting idea contained in the Torah Temima’s sefer on tefilla Barukh Sheamar. The TT had a question: in bentsching we say “hameleah, hapesucha, haqedosha, harechava.” The first, second and fourth are similes. What is “haqedosha” doing in that sequence? God’s expansive, wide, holy hand? It is really in disharmony with the others.

    Before I could even give his suggestion, which was the it was in fact a scribal error and it originally read “hagedosha” with a gimmel, making the sequence flow beautifully, I could not get this person to acknowledge their was even a question. “What do you mean? It’s the liturgy. There’s no problem.” Finally I did convince him enough so that we could move on to the suggestion, but when I offered it the person acted as if I was telling him that the Samaritan aseret ha-dibrot were a better text. I mean, this person was really appalled. If he had a better solution or could otherwise rebut the suggestion I was all ears. I wasn’t claiming this was definitely so; certainly there isn’t manuscript evidence, so the emendation has to be considered conjectural.

    So what’s my conclusion? Yes, R DZ Hoffman thought critically. Many people of all eras, today included, great and not-so-great think critically. But our culture doesn’t encourage it and many, if not most, among us don’t even know how to. Is it any wonder that those who could think that the scientific method is akin to a shittah, and one which can be rejected because it is a minority, would also swallow sugar pills? Elu ve-elu! The doctors say azoy and the smiling man in the ad says the voodoo therapy produces excellent results. Have you heard the one about the pigeons and the hepatitis? It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke. It is.

  22. S. says:

    >In our community, Meshech Chochmah IS a cultural element!

    I dispute that. In theory the Rambam is a cultural element also, but there aren’t too many people who have even a hava amina of what the Rambam believed and how much it is in opposition to most mainstream Orthodox beliefs of today.

    My point was not that people don’t learn Meshech Chochmah. Naturally they do. It is my 20 year old brother’s favorite pirush on Chumash.

    >By that I mean that part of the cultural mix is the power of the written word, particularly if it is old, as well as Torah personalities themselves. The truth eventually will out, even if it is sometimes forgotten or even supressed for a while.

    Does that mean that eventually our culture will realize that the Zohar is a 13th century work and not a tannaitic work?

    Here is where we once again re-enter fuzzy territory. To the extent that the question arise, our culture notes that, say, the Gra apparently regarded the Zohar as authentic rather than pseudepigraphal and that’s how the question is filed away and the conversation ends. While authority is a bedrock of our religion, conditioning towards appeals to authority are, frankly, why people believe in the Babas and the red strings.

    Again, I am talking about culture.

    >And there is no shortage of mekoros about the value of rigor in thought.

    That I agreed with above and still do agree.

  23. Bob Miller says:

    PT Barnum was not operating in a Jewish environment. Everyone has some degree of credulity that someone else will try to exploit.

    If we see a segulah which is also a mitzvah, we should do it because it’s a mitzvah.

    Our priorities in giving (to whom, where, how, how much…) should be those dictated by Halachah regardless of the claims made in ads, and I believe most of us understand this.

  24. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “It is disturbing, but not hopeless. Eventually, things return to the way they should be, under the weight of the internal evidence of Torah…Lo alman Yisrael. We may have been knocked to the mat a few times, but not even close to the count of ten yet.”

    This hopeful attitude is encouraging and refreshing, amidst pessimism that I hear expressed at times.

  25. Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

    Dilbert –
    You and I are not the only ones to think that the Kupat Hair pitch sometimes exceeds bounds of propriety. One of them spoke of someone who decided to try a donation instead of keeping his doctor’s appointment, and his condition resolved itself. This kind of pitch is irresponsible, because it implies (although I do not believe this was the conscious intention of the authors) that medical care could be bypassed in favor of increased tzedaka. That runs contrary to accepted halachic practice, and can cost lives.

    S-
    In our community, Meshech Chochmah IS a cultural element! By that I mean that part of the cultural mix is the power of the written word, particularly if it is old, as well as Torah personalities themselves. The truth eventually will out, even if it is sometimes forgotten or even supressed for a while. And there is no shortage of mekoros about the value of rigor in thought.

    We have not exactly lost Torah personalities who don’t jump to conclusions. My guess (and it is only a guess) is that you are not going to find the same kind of sacrifice of rationality in Ner Israel as in other parts of the Orthodox world. Anyone who spent time with the Rosh Yeshiva zt”l had to be affected by his demand for precise analytic thought.

    Lehavdil bein chaim lechaim, one of my mentors and heroes is Rabbi J. David Bleich. Try to get some sloppy thought past him, and you will live to regret it. So he does teach at YU. They still let him speak for Agudah.

    And come to think of it, I don’t know what you mean altogether by “cultural” elements. I can think of several reasons for the lamentable ease with which some/many (but certainly not all) people are taken in by what they shouldn’t. “Culture” is not the word I would use to describe the phenomenon. Jonathan Rosenblum wrote about the problem a few months ago, and his essay appeared, I believe, in Mishpacha as well as Cross-Currents. So the message may be needed, but is not so foreign as to be banned.

    Bottom line, however, is that I must regretably agree that there is a growing trend in this direction. Why must it be that frum people are taken in by all sorts of counter-rational ideas, ranging from autistic children communicating by computer to produces messianic predictions in broken Yinglish? Why do people embrace the strangest forms of alternative medicine, not just as an adjunct to the conventional therapies, but sometimes even to their exclusion – even resulting in death of children? Why did so many people so uncritically jump on the Bible Codes bandwagon, when the vast, vast majority of experts (yes, the frum ones too) decided that the evidence didn’t support the hypothesis?

    It is disturbing, but not hopeless. Eventually, things return to the way they should be, under the weight of the internal evidence of Torah. Torah study, at least at its best, always required a critical, rigorous stance. We have not lost that capacity. (Even Israeli Hamodia printed the long, well-documented trashing of facilitated communication by Dr Hershel Fried – himself a respected chassidishe figure – despite its support by a major figure in Lakewood.) Lo alman Yisrael. We may have been knocked to the mat a few times, but not even close to the count of ten yet.

  26. SephardiLady says:

    Thank you Rabbi Adlerstein for sharing the thoughts of a great Chacham.

  27. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “The one filled with stories of how putting money in the kupat hair pushka led to found objects, unexpected medical cures(or mistaken diagnoses that come to light), and other miracles?”

    I would discount that type of thing to an extent as showing communual hashkafa. Unfortunately, the need for charities is great, so they need to engage in this type of marketing of miraculous incidents. You are right that it is indicative of a supra-rational trend. If one’s hashkafa is more rational, it is best to contribute, but to ignore the sensationalist aspect, although the advertisements are ubiquitous.

    While I would not view the stories as “magical cures”, it is certainly not against Jewish belief to feel that Hashem answers prayers in the merit of contributing tzedokah, or because of a tzadik’s blessing, as Rabbi Adlerstein commented.

  28. Eliyahu says:

    Baruch, on the subject of miracles’ existence, here is a quote from an article in Jerusalem Post, Jan. 10, 1992.
    “raq launched 39 missiles against Israel before the Gulf War came to a close. One man was killed by a Scud, and 12 people – mostly elderly – died of heart attacks or suffocation during missile alerts. Pictures from the war show such extensive property damage that the only rational conclusion is that Israel was lucky.” The same article also says in total, the Scud attacks damaged 9,000 homes, with hundreds of houses needing major renovations, 209 damaged beyond repair and had to be demolished, with a total 3,100 people evacuated to hotels. So to recap, 1 dead out of 3,100 that had to be evacuated after their homes were hit beyond repair and thousands more who were in the danger zone. As the article (not written by a kabbalistically inclined person, presumably) states the only RATIONAL conclusion is that Israel was lucky, or miraculously protected.
    So you’ll tell me, there is scientific explanation for that too. If you want to believe that, be my guest, but luck is not really a scientific explanation.

  29. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “with a sense of longing for the old-time Litvaks I knew”

    I am not such a person, but I will comment anyway. :)

    The key is balance. On the one hand, we find mystical elements in the Gemera and of course in Kabbalah. For some in our community, segulos are a very important part of their life and Avodas Hashem. On the other hand, as a community we shouldn’t give the impression that we are naïve or superstitious.

    I was unhappy, for example, about an article in a charedi weekly which I thought was unbalanced in this area, because it seemed to sensationalize sugulos(one mentioned, involving the mikvah water of a deceased tzaddik was incidentally criticized in the Jewish Observer years earlier). I have seen plenty of skepticism on Jblogs regarding basic beliefs of Judaism, and I am convinced that many people would benefit in terms of being worthy of Olam Haba by going back to the basics and strengthening the thirteen ikkarim, instead of being exposed to the occult.

    So I am happy to read of the efforts made by Rav Yaakov Hillel regarding charlatans which hopefully will increase respect for chachmas hanistar(mysticisim), and the Torah in general.

    I link below to articles which appeared on Cross Currents on these issues.

    http://www.cross-currents.com/archives/2006/05/15/the-apostasy-of-the-monsey-fish/

    http://www.cross-currents.com/archives/2006/06/07/lessons-from-a-tragedy

  30. dilbert says:

    regarding the miracles or possibility of miracles by R. Elyashiv or Kanievsky: Does this validate the kupat hair mailing that I recieve? The one filled with stories of how putting money in the kupat hair pushka led to found objects, unexpected medical cures(or mistaken diagnoses that come to light), and other miracles? Where I can fill in the form on the back and have one of the ‘Gedolim’ daven for my(check the box) health, wealth, shidduch(no need for me, thanks anyway) or other?(where else can you ask someone to daven for Elisha ben Avuya?). Where on the rational/kabbala spectrum does the kupat hair mailing fit?

  31. S. says:

    >S – Touche. But not quite true. There are definitely cultural elements that promote healthy skepticism and critical thought. (See, e.g., Meshech Chochmah, Devarim 5:24 on how “Naaseh VeNishmah” became an impossibility once human beings interposed between the Divine command and its object.)

    The Meshech Chochmah is not a cultural element. I specifically attributed it to culture, because in fact there are ample sources and models for critical thinking and healthy skepticism in our rabbinic literature. But there is virtually none of that in our culture.

  32. Baruch says:

    “Baruch, let’s say that R’ Adlerstein would tell you that he personally knew of/experienced a miracle due to a bracha from R’ Chaim Kanievsky. Would you believe him?”

    Eli- not unless he supplied sufficient details. If what you’re asking is whether I actually need to witness what R. Adlerstein claims to have seen, the answer is no. I know he wouldn’t lie about it and that isn’t my point.

    However, I’m quite certain that, once provided with the facts of the purported miracle, there would be a scientific explanation, as there so often is.

    I welcome any details R’ Adlerstein wishes to provide of any miracles. I’d love him to be proven right, wouldn’t we all?

  33. Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

    Baruch –
    I’m not saying anything. I’m reporting what R’ Yaakov Hillel said. But for the record, I do believe that HKBH cherishes the tefilos of great tzadikim, and that those tefilos arouse Divine compassion. I also do not regard the word “kabbalistic” as a pejorative.

    DMZ-
    I don’t think he would speak about the Kabbalah Center, which would be beneath him. He was speaking about the small army of mezuzah readers, palm readers, coin readers, kesuva readers who travel from city to city impressing both the gullible and those who should know better. They’ve been to LA, and they are coming soon to a theater near you!

    S –
    Touche. But not quite true. There are definitely cultural elements that promote healthy skepticism and critical thought. (See, e.g., Meshech Chochmah, Devarim 5:24 on how “Naaseh VeNishmah” became an impossibility once human beings interposed between the Divine command and its object.) They are just increasingly ignored by many. I have my theories, but they are not for now. My piece was written with a sense of longing for the old-time Litvaks I knew, who would delight in taking apart whatever position you presented. Truth is that they are not in such short supply today, but seem at times to be outnumbered by those who are willing to believe anything.

  34. Eliyahu says:

    Baruch, let’s say that R’ Adlerstein would tell you that he personally knew of/experienced a miracle due to a bracha from R’ Chaim Kanievsky. Would you believe him?

  35. Chareidi Lenumi says:

    > Rabbi Shalom Ben Hayim Haikel Eliashiv

    I think you mean Rabbi Shlomo Eliashiv.

  36. Yoni says:

    It is intersting to note that both Rav Chaim and Rav Elyashiv are both masters of Kabballah as they have very strong mesoras from The Steipler and also Rav Elyashiv is a grandson of the famous kabbalist Rabbi Shalom Ben Hayim Haikel Eliashiv (the Leshem) (1841-1925) from Shavel, Lithuania

  37. S. says:

    I ask this in all delicacy and due respect: what is there in our culture that would encourage incredulity in this regard?

  38. DMZ says:

    Is this in reference to Berg’s Kabbalah Center (which is well-known to be a cult), or are there individual kaballah con-men and con-women invading Jewish communities in the US? I’ve certainly never seen the latter, although I suppose I never really hung out in the right circles where I would have.

  39. Gershon Josephs says:

    “Why are people so eager to suspend their critical thinking and flock to the quacks? ”

    “The cause of the problem is the spriritual defect in this heart, which is then externalized as the defect in the mezuzah.”

    “Rav Chaim Kanievsky, Rav Elyashiv. People of their caliber are capable of miracles, but no one of lesser stature.”

    I think you just answered your own question.

  40. Rabbi Zvi says:

    Excellent post.

  41. Baruch says:

    You make several ambiguous statements in this post, which perhaps you would care to clarify. First, you talk about Baba Sali being different than other charlatans. However, he is famous for flying on magic carpets and other purportedly open miracles. He never dispelled these claims although they were widespread in his lifetime. (He wasn’t lauded for his beis din service 1/1000th as much). Why not just come right out and say Baba Sali performed no such miracles and he should have denounced the claims if he knew of them?

    Also, you state: “If you want a beracha, go to the most accomplished in Torah – Rav Chaim Kanievsky, Rav Elyashiv. People of their caliber are capable of miracles, but no one of lesser stature.”

    Do you have any empirical evidence for the claims that these Rabbis can perform “miracles?” What do you mean here? How did you come to these conclusions (1, that miracles happen and 2, that only people of a certain stature can perform them)?

    Last, you rightly mock the person who infers causation of his myocardial infarction from its corellation with a hole in the mezzuzah. Fine, but then you go on to say: “He concludes that the mezuzah is the problem, instead of realizing that the hole in the mezuzah is the effect, not the cause.”

    Are you saying you think that there are times when one’s negative deeds cause physical effects on religious objects, such as mezzuzas? Are you describing some sort of spiritual telepathy? Of course, if you could substantiate any of these kinds of claims scientifically, you’d win the Nobel Prize.

    In conclusion, these allusions to the supernatural sound downright “kabbalistic,” and not in a good way.