Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Why the "Kaplan Affair" was a good thing

I have a basic one-off rule about lashon hara (gossip/unkind words): If you wouldn't say it in front of the person you're speaking about, then best to keep it to yourself. In other words, only speak the way you'd feel comfortable speaking if that person were there with you.

What I want to offer in this post is a similar principle: Only say things to your "in-group" that you'd feel comfortable saying to others.

The recent fiasco involving Rabbi Nissan Kaplan is a great illustration of how this principle can be arrived at - albeit unwittingly, and perhaps a bit too late. For those of you who aren't familiar with the story, R. Kaplan is a teacher at the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Last March he gave a class, recorded (much to his regret) for posterity, in which he stated:
"On Shabbos I spoke to my kids, and I said that Rav Steinman spoke that lemeisa [for practical purposes], we have today Haman and Amalek - all this government [of Israel] - and really the way is to take knives and to kill them, just as with the Yevanim [Greeks]. This is what Rav Steinman said. You have to take a sword and to kill them."

"So why are we not doing it? Because he said, 'I don't know yet who is the general who could run the war. But if I would know who's the general, we'd go out with knives.' This is what Rav Steinman said. There's a war against religion..."

"I explained this to my kids... Then, in the middle of the meal, my kid, five years old, says, 'Abba, we don't have a sword in the house, I'm looking - maybe a hammer is also good?' I was very happy, I gave him a kiss... I was so proud of my son. He's looking for a sword to kill all these government ministers."
Quite a mouthful. It's unnerving and obscene, and - well, also fairly prosaic. When you've spent enough time in the frum community, you know that statements which are offensive, racist, sexist, arrogant, elitist and triumphalist, statements which revel in the idea of Hashem's destruction of non-Jews or non-believers, are said as a matter of routine, by leaders and laypeople alike. They're said without anyone batting an eyelash. In fact they only boost the speaker's "status" in the community - because hey, here's a person who "says it like it is" and doesn't mince words. Here's a person who doesn't "apologize" for the Torah tradition but instead takes a strong and unabashed stand, like a faithful soldier in Hashem's army should... etc., etc.

And yes, for the most part, these kinds of statements are a lot of "hot-air." Yeshiva students don't generally leave classes like the one given by R. Kaplan and take to the streets in violence, nor do they typically plot anyone's demise. (Yeah, tell that to Yitzchak Rabin.) No, they basically just go back to the beis midrash like normal and carry on with the business of learning. And any teacher at the Mir would be horrified if one or more students were to do otherwise and actually "act" on his words.

That's the blessing and curse of "charedism" - lack of concrete action. It's a mindset which says: We aren't "big" enough (spiritually) to make changes to the system, even when such changes are arguably logical and necessary, and we also aren't "big" enough to do things like slaughter Amalek in the form of Israeli government officials. No, we have to wait for Moshiach to come and tell us all what to do... Which basically means existing in a perpetual state of suspended animation. Like I say, it's either a blessing or a curse, depending on the issue.

But just because yeshiva bocherim aren't incited to riot immediately after hearing a talk like that, doesn't mean that the words aren't seeping, one talk at a time, into their brains. It doesn't mean that it doesn't plant the seeds of violence. Clearly it does. The rioting and anti-government violence which breaks out intermittently in places like Mea Shearim and Beit Shemesh doesn't come from nothing - it's fueled by every seemingly "innocuous" hot-air statement made in yeshivas and shuls, and said offhandedly 'round the Shabbos table between spoonfuls of chullent.

Which brings me back to my original point... Even though it's totally par for the course for people like R. Kaplan to give over outlandish, belligerent, nearly psychotic ideas while safely embedded within the "in-group", they would never think of uttering these statements in other contexts. And if such words are ever leaked to the outside world, it's a cause for much embarrassment, desperate face-saving, clumsy back-stepping, and - in R. Kaplan's case - an explicit apology. Some of his words:
"I am completely against such words. They're disgusting. I regret what I said, and I am deeply sorry for using such examples. I am also sorry for hurting people’s feelings, and I hope they can forgive me."

"It is an aveira [sin] to do such a thing [i.e. to kill Israeli ministers]."
But what does such an apology mean?

Well, for starters it should be clear that R. Kaplan's apology would never have been issued if he hadn't been taken to task, if his words didn't go public. There's no question that he desperately needed to cover his - and the Mir Yeshiva's - "behind" here. I take him at his word though that he sincerely regrets having caused people upset and alarm as a result of his talk. That's a pretty "pareve" thing to say: "I'm sorry if what I said hurt you." Then the question comes whether his apology means that he's actually changed his mind and now disavows the beliefs themselves, the same beliefs he's been espousing for years and which are standard fare within his in-group. Some excuse his statements as "hyperbole", an exaggeration, which people have done the mistake of taking literally. But how is making it sound like it's a mitzvah to kill Israeli ministers a "hyperbolic" way of saying that it's in fact an "aveira"? A mitzvah isn't an "exaggeration" of an aveira! So what does he believe in fact?

Honestly, I'm not so concerned with that question. To me, the question of R. Kaplan's "true beliefs" is far less important than whether ideas like this will continue to be spoken and heard - whether they'll stay in circulation. Because when you take an idea out of verbal circulation, you in fact help to curtail that belief.

I'd like to think that people would remove ideas like R. Kaplan's from circulation because they're loathsome. However in reality, it happens not "lishma" (for the right reasons) but instead out of fear of transparency, concerns about the backlash that will occur when you can't keep the "in-group" and "out-group" hermetically compartmentalized from one another.

In essence, Rabbi Kaplan, via the fiasco he brought upon himself, backed into the principle: Don't say to your "in-group" what you wouldn't want others to hear.

It's a principle that works to take extremist ideas out of circulation. How so? Because people start to talk much more reasonably, sensibly, and moderately, once they're aware they may be speaking to a wider audience.

Which is why the "Kaplan Affair", as disturbing as it was, is really a good thing - because it further plants into frum people's minds that what they say is increasingly vulnerable to exposure to the "out-group". With transparency (i.e. mobile/internet communications, videos, etc.) ever on the increase, you never know when your words will come back to haunt you.

That kind of fear is pretty useful, I would contend, because it helps to rein in some of the "crazy". And hopefully, over time, that will work to generate a little more sanity.

49 comments:

  1. Very well said! I say something similar here:
    http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/god-and-google-are-watching/

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    1. Nice piece! Thanks for sharing the link.

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  2. I don't think anything will change in Israel though. Given that the top charedi leaders do in fact believe this government is amalek and their motive is to destroy torah, etc. see this for example http://www.jpost.com/National-News/WATCH-Rabbi-Ovadia-Yosef-cursing-IDF-draft-from-beyond-the-grave-346224 or http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4417647,00.html could it be that they are right?

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    1. I agree that R. Kaplan is a bird of a different feather than R. Yosef. The latter was not one to come forward with words of great regret and apology when his over-the-top comments reached the media. He pretty much stood by his word - which could be taken as a sign of "integrity" I suppose.

      could it be that they are right?

      You mean right about Lapid, et al. being Amalek and out to destroy Torah?

      First off, I wouldn't call anyone "Amalek" nowadays, any more than I'd call someone a Ammoni, Midyani, Moavi, etc. These are national designations which no longer exist. Yes, someone like Hitler might be "Amalek-esque" in being a "tzorer ha-Yehudim", but "esque" doesn't cut it for purposes of it being a formal "mitzvah" to wipe them out. In my opinion, that mitzvah is (thankfully) over.

      In terms of intending to destroy Torah, I think that depends on what one means by "Torah". If it means Torah without derech eretz (i.e. a mass kollel society which can't support itself), without a sense of "nosei b'ol chavero" (shirking army service), without hakarat hatov (being hostile to the State, the free society, and the people who run that society which allows them to live the life they desire), a Torah which comes off as elitist and xenophobic rather than eliciting "chein" from the greater people of Israel, then I would guess that Lapid - like much of the secular AND dati leumi world - would like to see that kind of Torah wane, recede. But if you're talking about the kind of Torah being promoted by his colleague R. Dov Lipman, one which has the components of derech eretz, nosei b'ol chavero, hakarat hatov, and chein, then I think Lapid not only would NOT wish to destroy that - he'd be PROUD of it!

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    2. I'm not so sure. tuma and kedusha are like fire and water. they cannot exist in harmony. you can't have true torah and advocate gay marriages or shabbat transportation. even with all the problems in charedi society, they are far closer to becoming what the torah intends than the other sectors. yes, there are some bad people but there are also some true tzadikim there which are mamash supporting the world.

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    3. I see the fact that Lipman and Lapid can work together as evidence that these worlds have the potential to coexist. The key is not imposing your values on others against their will. It's having some basic sensitivity to the other's happiness - even if what makes them happy is something you don't believe in. So you don't have to be a frum Jew AND support gay marriage for this to work - you just have to believe in giving others the space to exercise their will.

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    4. you seem like a well meaning person, but you are clearly poorly informed. there is nothing to be deduced from "I see the fact that Lipman and Lapid can work together as evidence that these worlds have the potential to coexist". as a neighbor, and perhaps even a friend of lipman's , i can assure you there is no "working together". lipman was a local "lo yitzlach", a nice enough guy, but without the ability to support his family, let alone have any public clout until to his "good fortune" the orot school episode broke out. whatever the rights and wrongs of that affair, lipman played a sharpton type role (for those who don't know who sharpton is, google his name) fanning the flames of anti charedi sentiment. like sharpton, lipman was able to parlay his playing to the media's bias into turning himself into a media darling, and then into a political career with a media personality who was starting a new political party. lipman has no independent base, and brings no advantage to yesh atid other than the photo op of a some one in a black kipa denouncing charedim. lapid doesn't really need lipman, and lipman knows it. therefore he acts like lapid's lapdog, constantly trying to find favor with his master and selling out his own values in the process. this is not just regarding religious issues, it is regarding every vote that he takes in the knesset, and every public statement he makes. in summary lapid and lipman don't "work together", lapid has opinions, lipman does not dare have any of his own, he just worries about pleasing his master.

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    5. I don't want to get into a whole back and forth about R. Lipman and the Orot debacle. There are clearly ways of interpreting his actions other than "fanning the flames of anti charedi sentiment".

      I'm also not in Lipman and Lapid's inner circle, so I can't speak much about their relationship. But I object to the use of terms like "lapdog" and "master". Even if you disagree with their policies, it's a degrading way to speak about people who are out there daily, giving their time, sweat and energy for the public good.

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    6. i am close enough to lipman (and an astute enough observer with friends on the "inside") that i can comment on their relationship. i hardly think that people who go into politics for purely self serving motives deserve any special consideration for being "out there daily, giving their time, sweat and energy for the public good" even if they do incidentally do some good for the public.

      that having been said, their relationship is indeed degrading to lipman. i feel bad that it is so, but lipman put himself in this situation. lapid is a very autocratic leader, but at least most of the other MKs in his party know that they have somewhere to go if he forces them out, and since they bring voters and media support, attacking them is not without risk. lipman, lacking any supporters of his own, is totally at lapid's mercy. even many people in the neighborhood who like lipman's message find his groveling distasteful. on several occasions lipman expressed an opinion on an issue, only to do a complete about face as soon as lapid expressed the slightest displeasure with lipman's position (and as i wrote before, often these where issues that didn't even involve religion).

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    7. If what you're saying is accurate re: Lapid and Lipman, that's truly disheartening.

      But I don't hold such a cynical view about either Lipman or Lapid going into politics "purely" for self-serving motives. Certainly not Dov Lipman, who strikes me as genuinely very idealistically motivated.

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  3. I must commend you though for exposing most accurately and insightfully into what really happened in the Kaplan fiasco. You could become a real talmid chacham.

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  4. Yes!
    Your comments about the value of public exposure reminds me of how a certain B'T yeshiva in a corner of Jerusalem was full of the craziness (pre-internet) you cite whereas their Los Angeles affiliate was significantly more, albeit not totally, normal.

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    1. And I'm sure the yeshiva in question is very careful to orchestrate *exactly* who the fundraisers are exposed to.

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  5. Thank you, Atheodox. Well said, as always. This is a very big problem. At the shul I went to before we moved (Mod Orth), I had to stop going to shalosh seudot on Shab because of the zany nobody-here-but-us-Orthos humor.

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    1. Yep, the good old boys around the table... Quite a hoot - until it ain't.

      Thanks for introducing yourself. I see you've been blogging for some time now. I look forward to checking that out.

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  6. This is the ONLY post I've seen which accurately puts Rabbi Kaplan's words in context. It's obvious that you spent time in a chareidi yeshiva. what a tragedy that Rabbi Kaplan has been demonized by those who simply don't understand how to put his words in context.

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    1. I'm glad the post didn't come across as demonizing - but I hope it didn't come across as apologizing for what he said either!

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  7. Nice vort.

    But, how would you explain his telling over the whole thing to the taxi driver, who, given his "safeikos," was clearly an outsider?

    To me, this shows that Rav Nissan hasn't a clue as to how bizarre his yeshiva shprach sounds to outsiders and thinks that what's "black and white" to him must also be "black and white" to everyone else.

    And if, it's not, then it's "them" that are krum and not c"v ourselves.

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    1. could well be that taxi story was just a story. it didnt happen or it happened but much less than what he said.

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    2. Shlomo, there's something to what you're saying. It could be he wouldn't be as reluctant to say such things to "outsiders" as I'm presuming. And for sure, when you're utterly immersed in your own ideology, you can easily lose track of the fact that your ideas are completely alien to 99.9% of the world.

      That said, Israeli taxi drivers - in my experience - are often very traditional-thinking, emunah-oriented, and pretty opinionated/vocal about it - not generally of the Western, liberal, post-Enlightenment, equivocal persuasion. So it could be that R. Kaplan didn't view him as such an "outsider" in terms of the overall belief system.

      And don't get me started on the "s'feikos" business!... If you "doubt" that Israeli gov't ministers are Amalek incarnate, that doubt itself is a sign of Amalek?... Man, talk about a ingenious mind-control mechanism!

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    3. The taxi driver is an "outsider" in the sense that when he's told that we have to kill someone, he (due to the pathetic and outlandish perspective that non-yeshiva guys have and especially rough and tumble taxi drivers) will think that means you're supposed to actually DO something.

      And that's why the taxi driver is the LAST person to say this over to, if your world view is that "taking action" means sitting down and rolling your thumb through the air once again.

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    4. those familiar with his shiurim, know that he has many many taxi driver stories. it was probably just to make an illustration of his point.

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    5. Tzvi what you say is correct. I have heard his shiurim and he often brings down taxi driver stories. He even said publicly that the story with his son never took place. could well be it was just an illustration

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  8. What Kaplan said about killing Greeks is worse. Worse than that is how some Jews think Kaplan is preferable to anything Jewishly non-charedi.

    If a non-Jew said these very words about killing Jews, we would accuse them of vile anti-Semitism and insist on their being removed from any position of authority. But if the vile anti-Semite wears a black hat, then we'll accept a pap apology without any kind of accompanying t'chuva, all in the name of Torah. How chillingly awful.

    You write about removing these loathsome ideas from circulation. But until your community acts towards black hats the way it does towards the rest of the population, and removes the speakers of these loathsome ideas from positions of authority, then the obvious double-standard is itself an appalling form of hate speech that has no place in Judaism ... regardless of the number of mitzvot performed by those willing to tolerate the double-standard.

    Understand: the Gentiles cannot criticize this speech, without being lumped together with Hitler. Liberal Jews like me cannot criticize this speech, because we're the real enemy, aren't we? It's up to the Orthodox, and if you people aren't calling for this man to be fired, I don't know where hope is left.

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    1. But until your community acts towards black hats the way it does towards the rest of the population, and removes the speakers of these loathsome ideas from positions of authority, then the obvious double-standard is itself an appalling form of hate speech that has no place in Judaism

      1. "My community" is centrist-Orthodox. And the charedi community doesn't give a *rat's behind* what the centrist-Orthodox community says. I don't think you realize just how far apart these two worlds are. In many respects, the centrist-Orthodox world is politically/ideologically/values-wise far closer to the secular world than it is to the charedi world. To which the charedi community of course says: "Exactly! Why do you think we don't listen to you? We knew you were traitors to the Torah, secularists in disguise!"

      2. "Removing these speakers from their positions of authority" also means removing the "gedolim" themselves (the top Torah leaders of the charedi world), since they espouse similar ideas. It means removing thousands of teachers from their positions at yeshivahs. Again, I'm not sure you understand how *endemic* this ideology is - spread throughout the entire system, from top to bottom. How do you propose we go about all this "removing"?

      3. To condemn the centrist-Orthodox community's reaction as "hate speech" in and of itself, strikes me over-the-top.

      But I agree with you that there's a double-standard about the tolerance given to the kind of talk that comes out of the charedi world, similar to the undue tolerance given to the Muslim world. And I agree that we ALL need to do more to express our disgust about it, and to do whatever we can to keep the ideology from spreading.

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    2. I distrust easy answers, but I'll start this reply with one. What would be your reaction if it was MY Rabbi, my Reform Jewish Rabbi, who engaged in such speech? Or if the Protestant Minister down the street who talked about praising his 5 year old son for the creative "final solution" he proposed for the "Knesset Problem"? I'm sorry to have to get personal like this, but I don't see a responsible alternative. Would your reaction be, hey, they'll never listen to me, so there's no point in saying what truly needs to be said? Would you say, hey, this is the way all Reform Rabbis and Protestant Ministers think, so there's no point in saying what truly needs to be said?

      I'll try a real world example. If a Protestant Minister supports divestiture, or a boycott of the Israeli economy, we Jews scream bloody murder. But if a black hat "Torah leader" (and the fact that you would describe these people as "Torah leaders" without using quotation marks really disturbs me!) advocates murder of Jews, there are some Jews who do not scream bloody murder. Please see the bitter irony in this. Please see the bitter double standard in that, when this exact same thing is taught by Palestinian Arabs in their schools, we make sure it is publicized to the world, and many in our community use this as a justification for not pursuing peace with Palestinians. And, by the way, the fact that we are teaching such hatred of our fellow Jews in our schools WILL LEAD to more hatred of Jews being taught in non-Jewish schools. This is not just karma, it is a regular pattern of history.

      I am a regular reader here, and normally, I admire the peaceful and reasoned tone you take, but there is a time and place for everything. A "Torah leader" who advocates murder has no business teaching our children, or for that matter anyone's children, and the failure to say so, in clear and unambiguous terms, is deeply disturbing. Mine is the only voice here in the comments that says this Rabbi has to go. If he is a "Torah leader," then his t'chuva should include at least a temporary leave of absence, as he personally apologizes to all those he has wronged, and sets out on a personal project to right the wrong (or has the Torah changed since the last time I read it?). The failure of anyone here to SAY THIS, boggles my mind.

      How do I propose we go about all this "removing"? One step at a time. The fact that a problem is endemic is not an excuse for failing to address the problem. I mean, if disease becomes an epidemic, doesn't that rather increase the importance of addressing it? Doesn't that mean that the measures we use to combat the disease must be more effective, and applied with greater urgency? And even if our initial reaction is, "where can we start," don't we nevertheless find a place to start?

      [more to follow}

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    3. You are right. My reaction to your reaction as "hate speech" was wrong. I wrote what I wrote from an emotional, agitated space. Surely I could have found a better way to describe the centrist-Orthodox under-reaction to charedi desecration of Torah values, a desecration that borders on criminal behavior (indeed, it crosses that border in many cases). Perhaps you can help me search for the right word. On my part, I am afraid that my point will get lost if I don't use language indicating that this under-reaction is itself a serious problem, and my fear drove me to over-react to your under-reaction. I am sorry, and you were right to call me on this.

      But in the process, I provoked you to say a part of what truly needs to be said. I got you to speak not as an A.J. who might characterize this evil as the inevitable product of G-d-belief, but instead as a centrist Orthodox Jew who says that he is and will be no part of a community that tolerates this kind of behavior. This is a statement that the centrist Orthodox needs to make clearly to the rest of the Jewish world, just as the Jewish world needs to make the statement to the Gentile world: this is not us. This is not Torah. This is not Judaism. We are as disgusted and appalled by this as you are. And we will make every effort to bring this kind of behavior to an end.

      Instead, the reaction *I* hear, not necessarily from you, but certainly from the vast majority of Orthodox Jews within earshot, is: better this than shatnez. It is the Orthodox themselves who draw the primary Jewish internal border between themselves and "secular" Jews, thus including the charedi on their side of the border. And it is this border drawing that emboldens the charedi to go further and further out into the lunatic fringe.

      What do I propose you do? I propose that the centrist Orthodox community speak in one voice, and say that they are not us. They do not represent any form of Judaism we can recognize as such. They are heretics, or if you prefer more Jewish talk, they are minim. They represent a problem more serious than the problem represented by secularism, and you are willing to make common cause with "secular" Jews like me to isolate, marginalize and repudiate the "charedi world."

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    4. Larry, as a Modern Ortho (I now daven by a partnership minyan, which by some lights in non-Ortho) I absolutely agree with you. And "better this than shatnez" is a stark but accurate summary of the attitudes of many. We need zero tolerance of teachers who advocate murder and an "eh, whatever" about shatnez. For most of us, it's the other way around.

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    5. Larry,

      Let me first try to be clear and unambiguous. The sentiments of R. Kaplan have NO place in any Judaism I subscribe to, and if he were teaching my kids, I'd pull them out of his class - and pull my kids out of the school if he wasn't fired and the school didn't apologize to the parents and do some sort of redress, i.e. explaining to the kids in no uncertain terms that what they were told is WRONG - period - and that the proper way of Torah is that of peace and loving one's neighbor - period.

      Now let me try to respond to your points.

      What would be your reaction if it was MY Rabbi, my Reform Jewish Rabbi, who engaged in such speech?

      I tried to envision the parallel, but honestly I'm finding it pretty difficult. R. Kaplan was speaking in "romantic" terms about the Final Redemption - i.e. the era of Mashiach, the Sanhedrin, building the Temple, restoration of sacrifices, and yes - the war to be waged against Amalek, wherein every last trace of Amalek is supposed to be eradicated. When he said that his kid wanted to find a sword to kill Amalek, he regarded it in the same way he would if his kid were to pack a bag so as to be ready to greet the Mashiach. It's all part of a fairytale reality that everyone says they can't wait to happen, and that indeed it's a mitzvah to pray every day for. This whole perspective IS a part of traditional Judaism (even if specific declarations about who is Amalek are NOT).

      That's why I can't imagine your rabbi saying something similar. Reform has dropped the traditional notions of future wars and temples and sacrifices. (And it deserves a lot of credit for that, I might add!) They aren't talking - as the Orthodox world does constantly - about the details of a magical future era which exists entirely in theory, and where because it's theoretical you can talk about all kinds of fantasies - some sublime and some totally hideous - without any real accountability.

      Just about ANY traditional believing Orthodox Jew would agree that: "If" it were the times of the Final Redemption, and "if" we knew without question who Amalek was, it would be a mitzvah to slaughter them. Again, this IS a part of traditional Judaism. Let me be clear: *I* don't subscribe to that. I think the notion of Amalek as a sort of "spiritual evil" which gloms onto individuals, who must be slaughtered to the last, is a sick and dangerous fantasy - an opening for murder or even genocide. And I disavow that belief completely. (It's yet another reason I reject supernatural ideas - because they can so easily lead to "transcendental" and "irrefutable" reasons for killing people.)

      The ONLY difference between the traditional belief and what R. Kaplan said is that he - with the alleged support of R. Steinman - identified Amalek with the Israeli government (seen by much of the charedi world as the "archenemy of Torah"). I'm not saying that's an insignificant difference - these are, after all, real live people, fellow Jews no less. By doing so, he blurred the distinction between "theoretical future" and "here and now". He took took a religious belief and connected it with a "live issue" - and with live people. And so even though said the line about "why we don't go out and do it today", he'd already gone too far.

      But really, would it have been less terrible if he labelled say, the people of Iran, as "Amalek", such that "if we had the right general" it would be a mitzvah to kill each and every last one of them - every man, woman and child? Not to me it wouldn't be. Yes, it's less "shocking" because they're not fellow Jews, and it's less threatening because they're "over there" in Iran, not here within arm's reach. But is it equally disgusting? Yes. And would people have made nearly the same issue out of it? Not a chance...

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    6. (cont'd)

      So really - and you're not going to like this - I think your difficulty with this (though it's fully possible I'm projecting) is a difficulty with certain aspects of traditional Judaism. Just that as long as we keep the fantasies about future slaughters neatly tucked away in the realm of the hypothetical, it's somehow "okay", "tolerable". But as soon as we make any attempt to fill in the blanks, make it more concrete and immediate in a way that makes us see how those beliefs would actually play out in horrific, bloody detail - suddenly it's "intolerable" and we'll have no part of it.

      I agree it's intolerable, but to me it's just a symptom. I say the THEORY itself is the root of the problem, and there needs to be a movement within Orthodoxy that's willing to stand up and reject it. Which is part of what I'm trying to do here, to say that all these supernatural, superstitious beliefs aren't just "quaint" and "innocuous". No, they sometimes have real consequences. Dangerous consequences. And to that end, the "Kaplan Affair" might be regarded as a wake-up call...

      Boy, I didn't exactly address much of your response. But it's late here, and that's about all I can muster for now!

      Best, AJ

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    7. AJ, seriously. I’ll grant your superior knowledge of “traditional Judaism.” But even in my modern Reform Jewish world, we would have heard about it if “traditional Judaism” taught it was OK to kill government ministers who disagreed with “Torah leaders.” I mean, our Rabbis go to school, too, and they study hard, and if “traditional Judaism” called for “Torah leaders” to take knives and kill government ministers, this would have come up at some point in their school year. Maybe not the first year, or the second, or the third, or the fourth, but certainly by the fifth year it would have been covered, that if one of your congregants wants to run for the Knesset, you might want to advise them not to do it.

      Granted, I understand that we’re supposed to hope for the coming of Mashiach, speedily and in our day. I hope for this. But he’s not here yet, is he? I figure, even I would have heard about it, if Mashiach were here. Does R. Kaplan know who he is? Has R. Kaplan made an announcement to this effect, that Joe Jones is the Maschiach, and he lives in the white stone house on the corner, so now it’s OK to go off killing people? If so, I think you kind of buried the lede here, don’t you? Similarly, are these the final days? Has R. Kaplan made an announcement, how many days we have left? Should I pay my credit card bill? I am assuming that we don’t think Mashiach is here yet, or that our days are numbered down to a precious few. So, I’ll engage in a little bit of understatement here, and say that R. Kaplan may have jumped the gun here.

      I take it from your argument that I’m supposed to read what R. Kaplan said in a conditional sense. I understand the argument, but it doesn’t apply here, because R. Kaplan did not say what he said in a conditional sense. He said that “today” we have Haman and Amalek. He didn’t say “if” today, then take knives. He said that “today Haman and Amalek,” ergo today “the way is to take knives and to kill them.” That’s not a conditional statement, and to make it clear that he didn’t mean it as a conditional statement, R. Kaplan asked “why we are not doing it?” If he meant what he said in the conditional, he could have answered his question that the condition(s) for the knives and the killing haven’t been met yet, because Mashiach is not here (so pay your credit card bills, because the end days will not come before the credit card company will come after you). Instead, he said that the missing condition was the lack of a suitable “general.” (That’s pretty much a damn invitation for some idiot to step forth, assume the generalship, and do something unspeakable.) Now, if R. Kaplan was using “general” to mean “Mashiach,” then maybe you’d be right. But that’s not what he said. He didn’t say, “If the general comes.” He said that he hadn’t identified the general. Which means that either R. Kaplan thinks he’s G-d’s appointed messenger to identify Mashiach for the rest of us dumb clucks, or that the “general” he’s talking about is simply someone capable of leading a group of sicarii against the Knesset … and if “traditional Judaism” teaches that Mashiach is the leader of assassins, again, that somehow escaped me and everyone I’ve ever met who knows more Torah than I do.

      So, yeah. I wouldn’t like it at all if “traditional Judaism” taught it was OK for some black hat to target assassination. But I don’t think that’s what “traditional Judaism” says. I think it is a very recent, indulged and perverse lunatic fringe of Jewish “Torah leaders” that says things like this, and I think it is up to us to say so, and then take appropriate action, which is to remove such people from positions of authority until they have performed the repentance and t’chuva that Torah demands.

      In fact, I’m puzzled that I have to make this argument. Isn’t it obvious?

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    8. I do not know Israeli law. I know U.S. law. I will cite some U.S. law for you.

      18 U.S. Code § 2385. Whoever knowingly or willfully advocates, abets, advises, or teaches the duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing or destroying the government of the United States ... by the assassination of any officer of any such government shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than twenty years, or both, and shall be ineligible for employment by the United States or any department or agency thereof, for the five years next following his conviction.

      I will admit, I have not diligently reviewed the case law to see if there is an Amalek exception. There is, of course, an unwritten exception to every law, for anyone with sufficient political power to avoid the usual application of the law, and I'm reasonably certain that this is the exception that allows R. Kaplan to avoid prosecution in Israel.

      That's right. No blaming G-d, or belief in the supernatural. Just a usual case of power corrupting, the same way that power corrupts whether or not G-d is present and the supernatural is disavowed.

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    9. Larry,

      I think that is *precisely* what got R. Kaplan in so much trouble. Not only did he identify Israeli government officials as Amalek, but he didn't stress the conditionals nearly enough. I'm sure that's exactly what he meant by a "general" - someone of a "heavenly" appointment. He might even say that the general is "Mashiach ben Yosef", which is a concept in the tradition. He didn't speak carefully - because as sure as the sun is in the sky, he absolutely did NOT mean that the time is "now" to do this, despite the fact that in his perverse understanding "we have today Haman and Amalek".

      As I mentioned in the post, this is one of the "blessings" of charedism. They would never say that this would be happening "now", because they don't view this time in history to be in any way/shape/form to be the time of Redemption. For them, despite the "ingathering of the exiles" and the establishment of Jewish sovereignty in Eretz Yisrael after 2000 years, we're still deep in "gollus" (exile). ALL such conversation is by definition about some ("hopefully not too distant") future time.

      So why does he emphasize "today"? Because Amalek is theoretically among us throughout all of history, until the End of Days. And because he wanted to make a political point about the current "war on Torah" imagined as being waged by the Israeli government, that the charedi propaganda machine has fabricated. He - like others - wants to connect Amalek to that. So in essence it's being painted as a war against Amalek - but just not the *actual* war where it would be a formal mitzvah to kill them. That, thank goodness, only happens in the (fantasy) Future (never) to Come.

      You know what kind of people I'm *more* concerned about? People like "Hilltop Youth" - the "Price Tag" movement. These are people who feel the Redemption has arrived (or at least the beginnings of it), and they're ready to ACT on it. They believe that we can't just sit passively and "wait" for Mashiach, wars, etc. like the charedim do - no, WE need to make it happen. I'm just glad *these* guys haven't declared who Amalek is. Because they've got guns locked and loaded.

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    10. About the legal comment, YES, absolutely this could be a case which qualifies as sedition or some similar category. Seems very reasonable and plausible to me.

      Though if that's the case, it may well be that R. Steinman and other rabbinic figures of his stature should likewise be arrested - and at that point we'll have a near civil war on our hands.

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    11. AJ, it must be wonderful to be charedi, and have so many good people explain the drash as if there is no such thing as peshat. I imagine if I were charedi, I could say any foolish or criminal thing that popped into my head, and someone would explain it away for me. It would be like a (fantasy) Future. Of course, there is no fantasy here. It is exactly as you said. If the law was applied to the charedi the way it is applied to the rest of us, there would be civil war. Such is the political power of the charedi, that they can exist as a lawless fifth column within Israel, cynically calculating that we’d prefer to pay the price for (trying to) live with them (buying them off), as opposed to the price we’d need to pay in order to require them to live with us in accordance with the (Torah) rules of decent society. It is our fear of civil war, not our belief in G-d, that allows the charedi to force the rest of us to subsidize their existence, while they insult us to our face for doing so, and causes good people to try and put the best possible face on a situation we should refuse to tolerate.

      AJ, R. Kaplan didn’t fail to stress the conditional. He failed to speak conditionally. You are imposing a template onto the peshat of R. Kaplan, so that:

      - “today” is not “now”
      - “if” is said when it was never said
      - “the way” is actually not a path you’re supposed to follow
      - “He’s looking for a sword to kill all these government ministers” means he’s hoping for Mashich to come
      - no actual killing is advocated (just some kind of fantasy), despite the fact that in three short paragraphs the word “kill” is mentioned three times and the specific target of the recommended killing is recommended at least three times.

      Why are we afraid to point out that this “Torah leader” advocated the violent overthrow of the Israeli government, and the cold-blooded murder of hundreds (perhaps thousands) of people? Because he wears a black hat? Or because of that threat you mentioned, of civil war? If there are members of Israeli society that live above the law applied to the rest of us, not just in the sense of not having to work for a living or to fight in an army built on the concept of “universal service,” but also in the sense of being exempt from the Ten Commandments (see no. 6, and perhaps no. 9) – and if they use fear (civil war) to retain the power to live above the law (civil and Torah) – can’t we at least speak truth to power and NAME this?

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    12. What R. Kaplan said: Why don't we kill them, being that they're Amalek? Because we lack a certain condition - a (God-appointed) general. I.e. it's conditional.

      How do you know the "pshat"? By understanding the cultural context behind the words. And I'm telling you - based on understanding the charedi cultural/ideological mindset - "today" refers to Amalek, not the war, "the way" refers to the way this mitzvah is supposed to be carried out at such time as it goes into effect in the future, "he's looking for a sword" is the child "getting ready" to fulfill a future mitzvah (according to R. Kaplan at least, though who knows what the child was thinking), and "killing" is exactly what that mitzvah is going to entail a whole bunch of.

      I realize that this "pshat" sounds completely crazy to you, but know that I have NO desire to apologize or make excuses for his statements. I'm saying it precisely because I *do* want to "speak truth to power" and don't want to promote what I see as a false understanding of his statement just so I'm not perceived as taking a "weak" stand against him. No, I'd rather take a strong stand and be truthful at the same time. Which is what I tried to do in this post - perhaps not well enough, but I tried and will continue to do so.

      I agree with much of what you wrote about their being "fifth column" and cynical about using the State and all its freedoms while not-so-secretly seeking to destroy it, and I think the State *should* hold individuals accountable who step over the "red line" in this regard. In terms of how to do that while at the same time avoiding major civil strife, all I can say is I hope better and more experienced minds than mine can figure that out.

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    13. AJ, let’s not split hairs. R. Kaplan made a present threat. He identified specific people and said, “you have to kill them.” Then he asked, why aren’t we doing it now? The answer: because he, R. Kaplan, has not identified the person to “run the war.” Not a “G-d-appointed general,” like you said, but a R. Kaplan-appointed general. As soon as he appoints his general, we must act or be acted upon. This is not so much a threat subject to a condition, but a direct order coupled with an excuse.

      I mean, by your argument, if someone tells me that they are going to kill me as soon as they get their hands around my neck, as soon as they pull the trigger, that’s a threat subject to a condition. If R. Kaplan makes the threat, identifies the target AND controls the satisfaction of the “condition” by which the threat must be carried out, that is a conditional threat in the most strained and technical sense I can imagine.

      So if you’re looking for a condition, there’s your condition. R. Kaplan says that as soon as he identifies the general, it’s time for genocide. Actually, that’s the most charitable reading of what he said, that R. Kaplan is the “Torah leader” in charge of genocide, and when he gives the high sign (any moment now), we either become sicarii or the victims of the sicarii. The better reading is, as soon as ANY of us identify a person with the bona fides to lead an assault on the Israeli government, the “way to go” is to follow that person. You don’t exactly have to be heaven-appointed to do this sort of thing. See, e.g., Sandy Hook.

      No, AJ. You cannot use a bizarre “cultural context” to transform the threatened overthrow of the Israeli government into some kind of theoretical shiur about Jewish apocalypticism. R. Kaplan is responsible for the ordinary sense of his words, just like you and me. You and I cannot threaten to kill someone, and then offer as a defense (even if it’s true) that in our “cultural context” threatening to kill someone really means that you’re offering to bake them chocolate chip cookies. Your post and comments are proof of this, because you yourself don’t regard the charedim as speaking in harmless code. You indicate that they will wage “civil war” if they don’t get their way.

      Only in the crazy, twisted world of a R. Kaplan does the speaker have the power to say what his words mean. In the real world, words mean what a reasonable person thinks they mean. And if R. Kaplan lacks the ability to teach Torah without uttering what should sound to any reasonable person like a death threat, then he shouldn’t be teaching. Which was, I think, my original point, before I started to consider criminal law.

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    14. I see three points of view as significant here:

      1. What R. Kaplan actually meant.
      2. How his students (his intended audience) interpreted his words.
      3. How a "reasonable person" (i.e. off the street, knowing nothing other than the words themselves) would interpret his words.

      As I understand it, you only see #3 as significant. Am I wrong?

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    15. Just want to add...

      I do very much relate to the importance of how a "reasonable person" understands religious statements and actions. For instance, I'm very uncomfortable with the blessings "that you have not made me a woman / non-Jew". Yes, I know that the classical Jewish "interpretation" of these blessings has to do with women and non-Jews (as well as "slaves") not having as many mitzvot to fulfill, and I know that with few exceptions most frum people are not having misogynistic or hateful thoughts when saying these blessings. They give them a "positive" spin.

      However, I say that's not enough - you also have to consider how these blessings sound to most people, even many "insiders" - i.e. as being denigrating to women and non-Jews. It would be like my hearing the blessing: "that you have not made me AJ". Well gee, thanks a lot!

      All the more so we need to consider what a "reasonable person" thinks when putting people into leadership positions whose statements would be understood by everyday people as sedition or incitement to murder! And I have no doubt that what a "reasonable person" would think makes a difference after-the-fact in terms of civil law and punitive actions. But would civil law not *also* consider #2 above, or possibly even #1?

      And in terms of judging R. Kaplan on a personal/moral level, do we not need to consider these?

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    16. Great question!

      I see these three things in increasing order of importance. (1) is important in the sense of what is in R. Kaplan's heart, something I'm not capable of determining. I hope he meant for the best. I hope he doesn't hope for carnage and genocide. But as a "Torah leader," he's responsible for saying what he means. If he is as learned as he is responsible for being, then he can say what he means. If his heart is pure and his speech does not reflect his heart, then he has no business teaching Torah, because his students cannot see into his heart any better than I can.

      (2) is more important than (1), and deserves most of our attention. R. Kaplan was speaking to a small and select audience, and one can argue that the primary meaning of his words is the meaning that existed in the hermeneutic interaction between speaker and audience. On this basis, it is possible to argue (a) that R. Kaplan's words were at worst harmless, because the words were understood as harmless by his students, and (b) that the harm occurred when his words were repeated to an audience (including people like me) that he never intended to speak to, and who would understand them as harmful. In other words, the fault lies not with R. Kaplan, but with the “whistleblower” who broadcast R. Kaplan’s words to a wider world.

      This argument falls apart on closer inspection. First, it assumes that the words themselves were understood harmlessly by those in R. Kaplan's classroom. There is no evidence for that, and quite a bit of evidence to the contrary, some of which you've supplied here during the history of your blog. You seem well aware here of crazy, anti-social, divisive and harmful actions of the radical charedim. You are the one who keeps mentioning consequences like "civil war" and "major civil strife" if these charedim are held to the same standards applied to the rest of us. I don't know if this insanity is being taught in R. Kaplan's classroom (the "affair" you mentioned, and I really dislike that word in this context, IS the teaching of this insanity, but it may be an isolated example), but if R. Kaplan is a "Torah leader," he's obligated to correct the kind of intra-Jewish hatred that threatens to destroy us all.

      Second: R. Kaplan is teaching students who purport to represent “Torah Judaism.” These students ARE going out into a wider world, where they are going to represent what they claim to be the only authentic form of Judaism to other Jews, and to the Gentiles as well. For me to buy the argument that R. Kaplan’s words were harmless as expressed within his classroom, I’d have to conclude that he (and other “Torah leaders”) are carefully teaching his students the difference between insider and outsider language. We know for a fact that this is not happening in any sort of general way. Indeed, many of your commenters were surprised not by R. Kaplan’s words, but by the fact that he was willing to apologize for them. We know that there are many “Torah leaders” who speak in this exact same way in public, with the microphones on, knowing that their speech will reach an internet audience consisting of folks other than their insider Yeshiva student audience, and who make no apology for doing so. I conclude from this that R. Kaplan's students are not trained that "kill them with knives" must be expressed (indeed, understood) outside of the Yeshiva as "the Messianic Age will be very nice."

      [more to follow]

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    17. Finally: R. Kaplan himself told his students that what he said was appropriate for discussion not just at Yeshiva, among presumably sophisticated Torah scholars, but also at the Shabbat table, to small children. This may be the most chilling aspect of a chilling story, even if R. Kaplan made it up and never actually recommended killing ministers to his five year old. R. Kaplan portrayed it as a good thing (worthy of a kiss on the head, no less) that his five year old son was fictionally ready to bludgeon people to death with a hammer upon the advent of a Messianic Age that we’re all taught to wish to arrive speedily. Ergo, I take issue with your statement that R. Kaplan’s “intended audience” were his students. It’s literally present in his shiur: his intention was for his statement to be repeated to small children, and all those present at Shabbat tables. (I have personally been present at Shabbat tables where self-described “charedim” were also present.) And given the wide dissemination of this kind of hate speech by other “Torah leaders,” I don’t see how R. Kaplan can be judged solely on how his students might have interpreted his words.

      In this discussion, we’ve already crossed from (2) to (3). I would argue that Torah refuses to make a distinction between (1), (2) and (3), particularly when it comes to hate speech. Is lashon hara ever justified if the speaker claims that his heart is pure, or that he never intended his words to be repeated to a wider audience? I’ll defer to your Torah knowledge on this, but I thought that was the whole point behind our rules on lashon hara, that once hate speech is unleashed, there’s no way to contain the speech or the damage. There’s a sense in which hate speech “wants” to break all boundaries that we might wish would contain it.

      In fact, I’d argue that Torah requires us to reverse the order of the three items you mentioned. I think you START with how speech is heard by the guy on the street. If it would be heard as hate speech on the street, then it’s going to be hate speech for the original audience that hears it, and (particularly when we’re dealing with a learned “Torah leader”) the speech can reasonably be understood as saying something about the speaker’s intention, and his heart. Yes, that’s harsh language, but I think it’s thoroughly Jewish, and I also think that the right way to ameliorate that harshness is not by trying to explain it away (“but he wears a black hat!”), but by insisting on appropriate repentance and t’chuva.

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    18. Larry, I was with you up to the statement:

      In other words, the fault lies not with R. Kaplan, but with the “whistleblower” who broadcast R. Kaplan’s words to a wider world.

      I would say that R. Kaplan took a gamble, and lost. Fault lies with him, not with the whistleblower. However, the understanding between him and his students about what he meant should (I'm guessing) mitigate some of his sentence if indeed he's found guilty of a crime.

      For me to buy the argument that R. Kaplan’s words were harmless as expressed within his classroom...

      I never said his words were "harmless" - I think statements like his do tremendous damage, even when interpreted "correctly", as intended - for all the reasons you stated and more. The attitudes being cultivated, by design, in many sectors of the Orthodox community - in this case the charedi community, are something we do need to worry about, and try to counter however we can.

      The only "harm" I'm questioning here pertains to the specific, immediate call to commit acts of murder.

      Ergo, I take issue with your statement that R. Kaplan’s “intended audience” were his students.

      Fair point. So expand that to mean that he told it to people who he was certain wouldn't actually go out and kill people, either because they understood that's not what he meant, or because they're a small child.

      I don’t see how R. Kaplan can be judged solely on how his students might have interpreted his words.

      I didn't say "solely". My question to *you* was whether you thought he should be judged "solely" based on how everyday people interpreted his words.

      Is lashon hara ever justified if the speaker claims that his heart is pure

      The question of whether the "intent" of the speaker is a factor in lashon hara is a great one! I'll have to look into that. And what you say about it being "Jewish" to judge concrete actions/effects rather than what's in a person's head rings true. That said, "kavana" (intent) is a factor employed throughout Jewish law, both civil and ritual, and it often has a significant impact on the Halacha.

      the right way to ameliorate that harshness is not by trying to explain it away (“but he wears a black hat!”)

      I'm disappointed (in my own ability to articulate, mainly) if this is your lasting takeaway from our lengthy discussion, that I'm giving R. Kaplan a "pass" because of his black hat. But as they say in the yeshiva world: "Veiter!" ("Let's move forward"). Sometimes you don't have resolution, and you just have to let it go and move on to the next "sugya", the next issue.

      Thanks for all your incisive comments - really got me to sharpen my thoughts and imbibe some valuable input!

      AJ

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    19. Veiter, with one quick thought: not every argument I was responding to was one I attributed to you. I never thought you meant to give R. Kaplan a “pass.” Clearly, you were critical of what R. Kaplan had to say, and clearly you felt that he deserves much (perhaps all) of the criticism he’s received. Yes, I think that a much tougher stance needs to be taken against this kind of speech, and against the political-cultural infrastructure that allows (even encourages) this speech. And yes, I think that the black hats can get away with stuff in the Jewish world that would never be tolerated coming from anyone else. But I did not mean to imply that this is the way YOU see it. If I need to get personal, I would say that you tend to give just about everyone the benefit of the doubt, and try to see the other side of just about every story you encounter. Personally, I would hope for a judge like you when I screw up.

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  9. Something here in Chicago that I think is tragic. Several years ago, we were strongly encouraged to go to a pre-Yom Kippur shiur given by a rabbi in town. Normally we avoid pious shiurim like the plague, but for some reason we went. This rabbi is now our favorite person on the local rabbinic speaking circuit, and I'm not being sarcastic. A Lakewood man in good standing, he said that it's not OK to mistreat people because they're not Jewish or not white or because they practice Judaism differently. A few years later I went to a place he was speaking (being a fan of his). Someone in the audience said something about what the Catholics believe. He replied that it wasn't his job here to speak on behalf of Catholicism, but he just needed to say that the questioner had oversimplified and distorted Catholic belief.

    So why did I say at the beginning that this is tragic? It's tragic because most Orthos need to be told this stuff, and because I'm his fan because he's the only one on the circuit who will say it. If non-Ortho rabbis don't say these things in their shiurim, it's probably because the default assumption is that their listeners already know it.

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    1. When you think how excited we get when thrown even a few "scraps" of common sense, it just goes to show how famished so many of us are!

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  10. Nothing will change. The Mir in Israel views Rabbi Shteinman as the gadol hador (the greatest torah scholar) and therefore his words are "daas torah" which one is not allowed to disagree with, just like one is not allowed to disagree with the words of the gemora. It is clear Rabbi Kaplan's words stemmed from what he believed was Rabbi Shteinman's view, and there are strong indications that Rabbi Shteinman does in fact hold the goverment is amalek. This is the underlying issue - whether the words of Rabbi Shteinman are "daas torah". I dont think this fiasco will change Rabbi Kaplan's view on this point. It will only change what he says publicly.

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    1. I tend to agree with your assessment. I would only say that for every person who stops speaking about it publicly, I count that as a score in the "win" column.

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