With Partners Like These…

June 23, 2016 at 6:36 pm

First published on Israel National News / Arutz-7

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the respected Chief Rabbi of Efrat, began his career guiding people towards traditional Jewish observance. Appointed Rabbi of the new Lincoln Square Conservative Synagogue shortly after receiving Smicha (ordination), he quickly persuaded his congregation to drop "Conservative" from both name and practice. Under his leadership, Lincoln Square grew into an early leader in Jewish outreach.

This makes his near-endorsement of a greater Israeli presence for the American Reform and Conservative movements all the more mystifying. While there have been significant changes since he made Aliyah (immigrated to Israel) in 1983, he emphasizes his own “contact with Reform and Conservative Rabbis” – and thus should remain familiar with their activities and outlook.

One might make a credible argument that access to a public Mikvah (ritual bath) in Israel should be open to anyone, regardless of affiliation or intended use. But that was not Rabbi Riskin's claim in a recent interview with Arutz 7. Rather, he suggested one should permit liberal Rabbis to use Mikvaot (for non-Halakhic conversions, no less) because “they're not our enemies, they're our partners.”

To love and pursue peace is a religious imperative. But as the Kotzker Rebbe once quipped, “when truth is discarded, peace is easily achieved.” The sad truth is that the American liberal rabbis and movements are anything but partners.

Most Israelis are unfamiliar with these groups; when they are introduced, they are often dismayed. Israel's current President, Ruby Rivlin, was invited to visit an American Reform Temple when first elected as an MK in 1989. He told the Israeli media afterwards that "as a Jew who does not observe 613 commandments and perhaps not even 13 commandments, I was deeply shocked… I felt as if I were in a church."

Reform leaders objected and professed insult – yet it was not so long ago that the rabbi of New York's Temple Emmanu-El boasted that "a prominent Christian lawyer… told me that he entered this building at the beginning of a service on Sunday morning, and did not discover that he was in a synagogue until a chance remark of the preacher betrayed it."

So are they encouraging similarity to churches, or not? They want to have it both ways; this is a recurring pattern.

Whereas Jewish tradition frowns upon conversion for the sake of a Jewish partner, the Reform and Conservative movements both actively encourage it. In 1983, Reform went yet further, pronouncing the child of a Jewish father to be Jewish – leading to a precipitous decline in those same conversions for marriage. But even if the mother of an intermarried son now believes that she will have Jewish grandchildren, this is usually wishful thinking: children of intermarriage remain unlikely to identify as Jews.

Having seen the failure of patrilineal descent, the Conservative movement refused that change. In most other matters, however, it has followed Reform's lead – with regards to driving on Shabbat, ordaining women, and even same-sex marriage. The average American Reform or Conservative Jew is today so far removed from basic Jewish practices that, comparing Pew Surveys in both countries, Israel's self-defined hilonim (secular Jews) are observant by comparison – more likely to light Shabbat candles, attend a Pesach Seder, or fast on Yom Kippur.

In 2013 the Pew Survey identified 1.8 million Reform Jews in the US, under 1 million Conservative Jews, and just over a half million Orthodox – but if the birth, intermarriage and assimilation rates of the distinct groups continue apace, the Orthodox will constitute the majority within several decades.

Israelis can certainly see the extent to which the American liberal movements strive for partnership. When Anat Hoffman ran for Jerusalem City Council on the Ratz-Shinui ticket in 1989, her platform was one of anti-Orthodox animus so poisonous that even many secular Jerusalemites condemned her advertising as crossing into anti-Semitism.

The Reform movement enabled Hoffman to rebrand herself as an advocate for “women's rights” – primarily the “right” of American liberal women to disturb the prayers of traditional Israeli women at the Western Wall. Her “Women of the Wall” group claims to merely wish to pray on the one hand, while rejecting alternate locations and expressing the desire to change Orthodoxy on the other. The Reform movement, which rejects the unique sanctity of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and the Western Wall as a site for prayer, finances her efforts.

The movement pays Hoffman to be the director of its Israel Religious Action Center, which Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblum described in 2005 as “determined to make life miserable for Torah organizations in any manner possible.” IRAC delayed the building of a religious center in Rechovot for over a decade despite City Council approval, attempted to prevent Chabad from operating at Ben-Gurion Airport, and recently announced that it will sue ElAl to prevent even voluntarily accommodation for hassidic travelers who prefer not to sit next to someone of the opposite gender.

Yet it is not merely the idea that they are partners with Orthodoxy that must be questioned. The liberal movements believe that they know Israel's needs better than those who live there.

The current head of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), Rabbi Rick Jacobs, served on the Board of Directors of the pro-Palestinian J Street, and the ultra-left New Israel Fund. On her American speaking tours, Hoffman deliberately distances her audiences from Israel: she claims that women do not have full civil rights, using Women of the Wall's own antics as her prime example. She also points out that American liberal Judaism – that which rejects the entirety of Jewish tradition – is not accepted by Israel's Chief Rabbinate as authentic Jewish practice. “Israel is way too important,” she concludes, “to be left to Israelis.”

The Reform movement erased the return to Jerusalem and rebuilding of the Holy Temple from its prayer books, yet these same liberal groups now threaten the Israeli government with “rupture” should it fail to transform the Western Wall Plaza, at tremendous cost and irreversible damage to archaeological sites, to meet their demands.

Last week they called for a “show of force” at the Western Wall; it drew less than 100 people. Their American adherents rarely visit Israel – would American liberal Jews care at all, were their leaders not fomenting discord?

They are not partners. They are not partners with Israel, and certainly not partners with Judaism.

Love Me… Or Else

June 20, 2016 at 1:54 pm

by Rabbi Yaakov Menken and Rabbi Pesach Lerner
The Jerusalem Post

“A love which is dependent upon something – when that ‘something’ is gone, the love goes with it. But an independent love will never cease.” [Chapters of the Fathers, 5:16]

A recent survey commissioned by the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism claimed that one in three Israelis “especially identify” with that movement. This astounding finding perplexed many observers, as – according to that same survey – only half as many Israelis had so much as visited a Reform congregation even once during the previous five years.

With real support from Israeli Jews, Reform and Conservative leaders would have little difficulty changing the nature of Jewish prayer at the Western Wall – Knesset parties serve constituencies, and would gladly enact modifications demanded by their voters. Instead, American liberal leaders are making threats: at a meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), warned of a “major rift between Diaspora Jewry and the State of Israel” if their demands are not met.

The heads of the American Reform and Conservative movements believe that Jewish love for Israel comes with terms and conditions, and that they control the American Jewish heart. They are inflating their importance on both sides of the Atlantic, and placing naked self-interest ahead of the unity of the Jewish People.

To be certain, they did not attempt to convince Israeli leaders of widespread local support. There are fewer than 75 Reform and Conservative congregations in the whole of Israel, including those open only on holidays. In the aggregate, they serve less than 25,000 congregants – under 0.4% of Israel’s 6.3 million Jews. There are more Orthodox synagogues in Tel Aviv, the “secular capital” of Israel, than seats in its lone Reform congregation.

Instead, they assert that “Diaspora Jewry” shares in their demands. Even ignoring the predominance of traditional Orthodox synagogues everywhere outside North America, this is a specious claim: according to the Pew Survey of 2013, only 25% of Jews in the US are members of a Reform or Conservative congregation. They have lost the allegiance and involvement of the American Jews they claim to represent.

The majority of the less than 250,000 American Jews visiting Israel each year – and the vast majority of olim – are Orthodox. Of the remainder, the majority are on Birthright Israel or others visiting for their first time. One is left with a vanishingly small number with any interest in changing Israel’s entirely different Jewish culture.

The Pew Survey of Israeli Jews published this year noted that the American concept of Jews divided into “denominations” or “streams” is foreign to Israeli Judaism, which remains far more traditional. Responding to their impartial questionnaire, less than 5% of Israelis identified with either US liberal denomination: the overwhelming majority chose “Orthodox” or “none.” And even so-called secular (“Hiloni”) Israelis are more likely to engage in Jewish observances – such as lighting Sabbath candles, holding a Passover Seder or fasting on Yom Kippur – than adherents of American liberal movements.

This being the case, American Reform and Conservative leaders should be less concerned about Israeli Jewish practices, and more concerned about those of their own congregants. Successive surveys show sagging Jewish affiliation over time in America, while just the opposite is true in Israel.

Without focused effort by liberal leaders, the Diaspora’s troubling Jewish decline will continue to accelerate within their movements, and the Jewish future will be found only in the yet more rapid growth of Orthodoxy. The median age of those identified with liberal denominations is now 55, while that of Orthodox Americans is 40 and swiftly dropping. The intermarriage rate for non-Orthodox Jews has reached over 70% – for the Orthodox, it is stable at 2%. According to the Avi Chai Foundation, only 5% of American Jewish children receiving a full-day Jewish education attend Reform or Conservative schools.

To the extent that Jewish allegiance to Israel has become conditional rather than integral for American Jews, this is the sad consequence of that same lack of commitment. According to the Pew Survey in Israel, 68% of Israelis feel a common bond with their Jewish brethren in America, and three-fourths believe that we share a common destiny. Yet only 43% of American Jews now believe that caring about Israel is essential to being Jewish.

The American liberal movements are also openly at odds with the Israeli consensus regarding Israel’s security needs. Rabbi Jacobs also served on the Board of Directors of the pro-Palestinian J Street, and the ultra-left New Israel Fund. He was at the forefront of those who pressured Prime Minister Netanyahu to stay home, rather than address the US Congress regarding Israeli opposition to the “Iran deal.”

A growing number of supporters of the anti-Israel BDS movement on campus are young progressive Jews, in love with liberal ideals and blithely ignorant of the ugly history of anti-Semitism. Are these among the American Jews who might “rupture” with Israel over the issue of Jewish prayer?

Israel’s multifaceted Jewish community has demonstrated its commitment and success in ensuring a common Jewish future; it is inappropriate for American Reform and Conservative leaders to demand changes. They cannot presume to speak for American Jewry, and the Prime Minister should recognize that “love” contingent upon meeting demands is no love at all.

Rabbi Yaakov Menken is the Director of Project Genesis – Torah.org, and the co-Editor of Cross-Currents.com, an Orthodox on-line journal.
Rabbi Pesach Lerner is the Executive Vice President Emeritus of the National Council of Young Israel.

A Unique Encounter

June 10, 2016 at 10:30 am

The Torah teaches that at Sinai, G-d did not reveal Himself to a single individual. Rather, He spoke to the entire Jewish nation.

Rabbi Moshe Maimonides, the famed Jewish scholar of over 800 years ago, calls this event the foundation, the “pillar upon which our belief revolves.”

Why is this not circular reasoning? The answer is that this event is not something taken on faith, itself. Every Jew today knows that at least until recent generations, his or her forebears believed that this event actually happened — Maimonides says “the best of all witnesses testified” about it.

He points out, further, that there has been no similar event in history, and that the Bible itself tells us that this will never happen again. Moshe warns the Jewish nation to never forget “the things which your eyes saw,” and to teach this to the next and following generations [cf. Deut. 32].

Many have tried to explain that this was merely a story, that it never actually happened. But when they try to explain it in detail, an alternative story stops making sense.

Imagine a village in Brazil, along the Atlantic Ocean, that holds a festival every spring. The festival, they tell you, is a celebration of a miraculous event 400 years ago, when a flood swept through their community. The flood did massive damage, washing away entire buildings, yet afterwards not a single villager had perished. And they celebrate that miracle with an annual event. And they present you with records copied by hand from originals dating all the way back to that period.

Would anyone disbelieve the story? Would people argue that the village elders just made it up at some point? Everyone would agree that this almost certainly happened; there is no reason to discount it.

When we look around us today, we see billions of adherents of religions based upon Judaism. There are literally hundreds of religions and sects which claim that they and they alone have the correct theology. There are Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Catholics, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Mormons — and the list goes on — most of which differ on core theology.

Obviously, the best way to start such a religion would be to create the tale that G-d Returned, spoke to a new group of believers, and explained His new rules. But the Torah asserts that “when you shall look back at the days before you,” you will see that this story was never told prior or after Sinai. The Rambam elaborates: “that there was never anything like this prior, and there will be nothing like it afterwards, this being that an entire individual nation shall hear the words of the Holy One, Blessed be He, and that they shall see His Glory eye to eye.”

Maimonides teaches that this has not been done, because it cannot be done — because the Jewish Encounter with G-d is truly unique in human history.

It’s Not About Our Enemies

June 3, 2016 at 3:32 pm

passing-stormThis week we read a very uncomfortable section of the Torah. G-d warns us that bad things will happen if we don’t keep His rules in His land. Keep the rules, He says, and things will be wonderful. But if you don’t, punishment will come to the Jewish Nation.

Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, known as the Netzi”v (the Hebrew acronym of his name), was the Dean of the famed Volozhin Yeshiva in Europe in the 19th Century CE. He says that we can tell where the punishment is coming from because it’s a punishment. It’s not an ordinary conquest of one nation over another.

When one army overcomes another, they don’t punish the population on the losing side. Even losing soldiers are released once they are known not to pose a further threat.

But if a group of people rebel against the King, that’s an entirely different story. After he puts down the rebellion, he will harshly punish those responsible — because he expected their loyalty.

So Kings would not exile populations or destroy their temples to their idols. What befell Israel, in accordance with the warnings of this Torah Portion (and similarly near the end of Deuteronomy), was extraordinary and even nonsensical in terms of warfare and geopolitical domination.

But it makes sense in the context of a punishment.

Since, the Netzi”v writes, G-d made a covenant with the Jewish people at Mount Sinai, in which they would be His unique nation and guard His rules, it is the breach of those rules which explains why the people of Israel were punished.

As we know, this was used throughout history to “prove” that G-d had abandoned his nation. But the Torah itself says otherwise: “And even with that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them, and I will not be disgusted with them to eliminate them, to nullify my Covenant with them” [26:44]. As Rashi explains, “and even though I will due to them this repayment [for their bad deeds] that I have described, ‘when they are in the land of their enemies,’ I will not reject them ‘to eliminate them,’ and to ‘nullify my Covenant’ which I have with them.”

The word “l’chalosam” is precise. It doesn’t mean simply to destroy, but to eliminate. Even in the punishment, we see G-d’s Promise to the Jewish People. Other nations can be eliminated, either physically or through a change to their ideology and beliefs such that they are no longer who they were. But the Jews have a promise from G-d — that no matter how bad things may be, we remain the Eternal Nation.

It is those who oppress us who disappear. The last group that tried to kill us is now society’s worst epithet, and we are here.

That promise stays with us always!

Gone to the Gorillas

May 31, 2016 at 10:09 pm

On Saturday, a 4-year-old child got away from his parents and crawled over a barrier. Sadly, he tumbled 20 feet and was killed. This was reported on page 20 of the local news and buried on a few local websites, but nowhere else. The parents blamed the people responsible for the barrier and filed suit, while the other party insisted they were not to blame. Those few who read the news reports sighed about the tragic accident, and moved on with their lives. No one called the mother negligent or horrible; no one picketed the other party.

WCPO_Harambe_Cincinnati_Zoo_silverback_gorilla_1429037871541_16763037_ver1.0_640_480We know so little about this story that I’m not even sure it happened. Probably something like this did somewhere in the civilized world, but we don’t know about it because no one paid attention — we all know of similar stories from the past, even the recent past.

From which we learn that society now cares more about the life of a gorilla than the life of a young boy.

Because something quite similar to the above did happen on Saturday, but the boy wasn’t actually harmed, at least not seriously. He fell, however, into the gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo. One of the gorillas, called Harambe, came over to him and initially seemed to care for the child, but then grew agitated and dragged him away from people. After several minutes trying unsuccessfully to calm Harambe, the animal care team realized the child was in imminent danger, and shot the gorilla.

“Animal rights activists” held a vigil at the Cincinnati Zoo. Never, in the 143 years since the Cincinnati Zoo opened, has anyone previously entered an animal enclosure — and most zookeepers are reluctant to shoot the animals under their care. But they are taking the zoo to task, claiming, of course, “excessive force” — that it should have been possible to retrieve the child unharmed from an agitated 450 pound gorilla if they had simply asked nicely enough.

A different school of thought launched a petition at change.org calling for “the parents to be held accountable for the lack of supervision and negligence that caused Harambe to lose his life.” The undersigned even “actively encourage an investigation of the child’s home environment in the interests of protecting the child and his siblings from further incidents!” And this petition crossed the 400,000 signature mark during the time this post was written. Not only are newspapers displaying the names and the pictures of the boy’s parents, Deonne Dickerson and Michelle Gregg, but they are discussing the father’s “criminal history” as if this were somehow relevant.

Those of us who have actually been parents should know how ridiculous this all is. Michelle and Deonne have four children, the littlest of whom was not delighted to learn that mommy thought it was time to leave the zoo. During the moments that it took to attempt to mollify her, the four-year-old dove for the barrier — and, yes, a four-year-old is going to find his way past reasonable barriers if he puts his young mind to it. Anyone who thinks this requires parental negligence has never parented. Or, it is as my own young son suggested: people are holding vigils and signing this petition because they know the gorilla was more intelligent than they are.

Chazal tell us that when Migdal Bavel, the Towel of Babel was under construction, the people cried if a brick fell and broke, but they didn’t cry if a person fell and was killed. It seems beyond illogical. If nothing else, a person is able to make and carry more bricks, so why wasn’t the death of a person at least as important as the brick?

But here it is: hundreds of thousands of people, none of whom would have blamed the mother of a child who escaped her attention and fell to his death, are calling for Gregg to be held responsible because her child’s fall led to the death of a gorilla.

The entire Western ideal of care for animals, of course, comes from our Torah. But once taken outside of a Torah context, that same principle can be horribly misused. We know that a human life is of infinitely greater value than an animal life — and fortunately the staff of the Cincinnati Zoo does as well. Not so, apparently, hundreds of thousands of people in the United States and elsewhere.

The Simple Truth

May 27, 2016 at 1:58 pm

There is a deceptively simple Commandment in this week’s reading: “a man shall not deceive his brother” [Lev. 25:14]. This is distinct from being a false witness [Ex. 20:16], denying having another’s property [Lev. 19:11] and false judgment, “distance yourself from a lie” [Ex. 23:7]. The topic in this case is financial deception, Ona’as Mammon.

maxresdefaultA person is forbidden from overcharging, misrepresentation and deception, whether when buying or selling. This applies both to hidden defects in an object for sale, and purchasing a valuable antique at a cheap price because the seller is unaware of its true value.

I remember the first time I wanted to buy a car once I was out of school. I was told there was a person in Baltimore named (Rabbi) Meir Sher, at Sher Auto, from whom people purchased vehicles “sight unseen.”

It seemed unbelievable. The business of used cars is known for misrepresentation and deception. Look up “used car salesman” on Google and it will helpfully offer modifiers like “slick,” “shady,” and “dodgy.” You can’t even sell “used cars” anymore — you sell “certified preowned vehicles!” It’s not used, it’s just “preowned,” like a decorative piece is “preowned.” The previous owner had it in their garage and never drove it.

In Baltimore I heard about another dealer named Eli Feldman, with a company called Maven Motors. In total, we have acquired three vehicles from him over the years, and have had fewer problems with his vehicles — used — than with a brand-new minivan we bought from the showroom.

I don’t think it’s coincidence that Rabbi Sher reads his prayers slowly and exactly, or that Eli Feldman is the nephew of the Dean of Ner Israel Rabbinical College. These are people who understand our religious obligations, and live those obligations.

And perhaps this explains why there are now several other successful vendors of used cars in Baltimore (e.g. CarZone Autos, which offers “Over 200 Used Cars to Choose from”, who are also observant Jews. When people know that they can trust you not to deceive them and have a good experience, the word gets around. Instead of having to use euphemisms like “certified preowned,” their honesty makes for good business!

Addressing Dishonesty

May 24, 2016 at 2:27 pm

I must admit, I’m disappointed. [Even more so with the response… see update at bottom.]

When Rabbi Adlerstein and I started Cross-Currents, I used to read various critical responses to my essays on several blogs. It was not long, though, before I realized that to read them was foolish — there are some bloggers who will quite reliably insist that the sun rises in the west simply because an observant Rabbi has said otherwise. [This is the same reason Rabbi Avi Shafran declines to publish comments to his essays.] Since then, people have occasionally written to ask why I offered no response to various online critiques and rebuttals, and “a waste of time” has been my inevitable answer.

shutterstock_220973980.0There are some, though, of whom you expect more. And last night, someone asked me to look at a post by a moderately well-known writer and blogger. You’ll all know who he is, but I’m not going to link to the post for a different (yet similar) reason than I didn’t link to the viral video of yesterday — I hope he’ll regret posting it, because he should, even if he doesn’t yet.

This is personally disappointing because we used to be friends, and I persisted in believing that we were. On one of his early trips to Baltimore to talk about zoology and Torah, he stayed in our house. His best line was when my wife said that “bats aren’t bugs,” and he immediately recognized the source: “I am expert on two things. Zoology, and Calvin and Hobbes.”

Even after his books were condemned by Gedolim, he remained a client — our work for other Jewish organizations led to doing commercial web hosting, and although I have sold my interest, I believe he’s still using that service. So whether or not I agreed with him, we were hosting his rejection of the ban. This remained true even after I was asked by Rav Aharon Feldman, shlit”a, to review Rav Meiselman’s book, “Torah, Chazal and Science,” for the journal Dialogue.

Now although Rav Meiselman doesn’t name names, it was obvious to whom he was referring when he wrote in his preface that:

A spate of books and articles and a nonstop discourse in the blogosphere have attempted to introduce a radical new theology and proclaim it compatible with classic Jewish belief. Most of this literature has been sophomoric at best. In general it has not been written by people trained simultaneously in Torah and science, whereas the topics dealt with often involve complex issues, calling for expertise in both.

So I understand why he wasn’t too pleased with the book, and that he probably wouldn’t enjoy my favorable review. But you know, that’s how things are sometimes, and the truth is best served when we don’t involve our personal animus or emotions.

As it happens, my review included addressing criticisms found in two other reviews, both critical of Rav Meiselman’s position. One of those critical reviews was written by the person who took over publication of the banned books after they were dropped by their previous publisher, and with whom I’ve collaborated on several matters. I carefully expressed my feeling that “when a person starts off with such an obviously negative perspective, it is that much more important to base criticism upon clear errors or contradictions, and reference other, more neutral sources to support his position.”

And in that case, we apparently succeeded in avoiding personal conflict. That reviewer wrote to me that he welcomes criticisms of his writing and looks forward to future cooperation in the many important areas where we largely and/or entirely agree.

Not so, apparently, when it comes to the blogger’s opinion of my review. There is no reason for disagreements to involve falsifications or straw man arguments, of course, but what upset my friend were the personal attacks. I may indeed be a “charedi polemicist,” but in context it didn’t seem that he meant that as a compliment. And what ended up happening is that in his effort to make me look foolish, he either falsified my words or those of Rav Meiselman, or mocked the words of the Rambam — all of this in a post entitled “Adulating Dishonesty.” One is reminded of the old adage found in the Gemara about projecting one’s own defects onto others: Kol HaPosel, B’Mumo Posel, all who invalidate use their own defects to do so.

In the first paragraph, the blog asserted that Dialogue “coincidentally” has Rabbi Meiselman on the editorial board. This is incorrect, and the blogger cannot use a non-fact to imply collusion or censorship (the word “coincidentally” can only be read in context as insinuating that this was anything but coincidental). While Rabbi Meiselman was a member of the Rabbinic Board governing previous issues, and was so listed on the inside front cover of those issues, he is no longer listed — for he left the board prior to the compilation of the current issue. He had no input or control regarding any part of my submission. His former membership of the Rabbinic Board cannot serve to impugn the credibility of a review written after his departure.

The second paragraph, though, was what surprised me. I will address this in detail, so that the reader may see for him or herself. Here is the paragraph in question from the blog post (minus the last sentence, which transitions to the main sections):

Some of Rabbi Menken’s eager adulations of Rabbi Meiselman’s book are hilarious. For example, Rabbi Menken notes that an example of Chazal’s advanced knowledge of the natural world is that they presented Pi as being three, because this must have been because they knew it was an irrational number and cannot be expressed exactly!

There are no additional words related to this subject in the blog post; this quote is both complete and entirely in context. The clear implication of his words is that Chazal presented Pi as being three, and that I or Rabbi Meiselman (or both) suggested that it “must have been” that Chazal knew that Pi was an irrational number — projecting current mathematical knowledge back into the distant past in order to excuse a coarse estimate, and then using that very projection to tout Chazal’s prescience. This, of course, would be ludicrous, and an apt target for rich mockery. And that is indeed his point, to use this as an example of “hilarious” adulation.

Yet here is what I actually wrote:

The author [Rav Meiselman] cites many similar cases in which Chazal possessed knowledge of the physical world beyond what was known to other cultures. For example, the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle (pi) is an irrational number, meaning it cannot be expressed as a ratio of integers. This was only established by contemporary mathematicians in 1768, but the Rambam explains that the reason why Chazal used the approximation of 3:1 is because the actual ratio cannot be stated definitively in any case (p. 154).

Nowhere did I suggest that it “must have been” that Chazal knew that three was merely an approximation of Pi, which they knew to be an irrational number. What I wrote is that the Rambam said that this was so. And the Rambam, of course, said this many centuries before mathematicians achieved the same understanding.

And here, further, is the referenced passage from page 153-154 of Rav Meiselman’s book:

Let us begin with the example of Pi, which we referred to in the course of an earlier discussion. This number, which is both irrational and transcendental, is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. It seems that one of the first definitive statements of its irrationality in recorded history is that of the Rambam in his Peirush Hamishnyos. In contemporary mathematics this fact was only established by the German mathematician Johann Heinrich Lambert in 1768.

The Rambam gives no source for his information. Scholars have presumed that he deduced it from Talmudic passages in which it is implied. In fact, the Rambam seems to say so almost explicitly. He writes that Chazal use an approximation for Pi rather than a fraction because it is irrational. This seems to imply that if Pi were rational there would be no justification for instituting a legal approximation rather than the appropriate fraction. The very fact that Chazal did so indicated to him that they knew it to be irrational.

Again, the idea that Chazal knew three to be a rough estimate for Pi, which they further knew to be an irrational number, is attributed directly to the Rambam. Rav Meiselman provides extensive footnotes throughout his book, and includes the text of the Rambam’s Pirush HaMishnayos, Eruvin 1:5, which shows the attribution to be accurate, in two notes on page 154. Note that as the Pirush was originally written in a Judeo-Arabic dialect and later translated, there are minor differences between the text of Rav Meiselman’s footnotes and the text as found in the back of Maseches Eruvin in a Vilna Sha”s. But please don’t believe my translation, you are invited to do your own of either version:

You must know that the ratio of the diameter of a circle to its circumference is unknown, and impossible to express precisely. And this is not due to our lack of understanding… [rather] it is by its nature unknown, and cannot be fully known… but it is possible to estimate… The best estimate used by academic scholars is a ratio of one to three and 1/7… And since this will never be entirely understood except by approximation, they (Chazal) took a large number and said that anything that has three in its circumference has a diameter of one, and they relied upon this in what was required for measurements in the Torah.

If we translate his language to that used by mathematicians today, the Rambam said that Pi is an irrational number, as Rabbi Meiselman wrote — “a real number that cannot be expressed as a ratio of integers, i.e. as a fraction… irrational numbers, when written as decimal numbers, do not terminate, nor do they repeat.” [Pi is the paradigm used in the Wikipedia article.] It can never be fully known. Supposedly mathematicians have reached 12.1 trillion digits.

So here is why I am disappointed:

Did I say that Chazal presented Pi as being three, because “this must have been” because they knew it was an irrational number? Of course not. Did Rabbi Meiselman? Once again, of course not — and we know the blogger has Rav Meiselman’s book, because he says himself that he is “steadily working through” its contents.

Rather, it was the Rambam who said so, 600 years before modern mathematicians reached this same conclusion. In the Rambam’s time, this statement was hardly projecting “current knowledge” back onto Chazal, because even then the nature of Pi remained unknown. On the contrary, the Rambam’s statement itself is evidence that “Chazal possessed knowledge of the physical world beyond what was known to other cultures.”

So the author of the statement found so “hilarious” by the blogger is: the Rambam.

The reader of the blog post in question is led to mock the very idea that Chazal knew Pi to be an irrational number — in other words, to mock the words of the Rambam.

I cannot speculate upon whether the blogger actually read and comprehended this portion of Rabbi Meiselman’s book before erecting his straw man and leading the reader to mock a profoundly insightful statement of the Rambam. I don’t see, though, why it is relevant. Whether deliberately or through negligence, he led the reader to mock Divrei HaRambam!

What I can say is that I hope this 2000-word exercise is helpful and enlightening to some readers, and at least explains both my disappointment and why I will decline to address such things in the future. It’s clear at this point where the dishonesty lies.

[His response is yet more saddening and revealing. First, the writer posts a picture of Voldemort with a caption reading “he who must not be named.” Even some of his supporters termed his initial post attacking me “rabid,” but because I did not want to descend to his level, and condemn him while naming names, I’m apparently to be criticized for that too. It’s no surprise, really.

In his latest essay, he makes unsourced claims about Greek and other knowledge in order to portray the Rambam’s statement about Pi as a common insight: “But it was known to be irrational long before” Lambert proved it, he says.

History says otherwise. Lambert’s colleague Leonhard Euler believed that Pi was irrational, but could not arrive at a proof. It was Euler who got Lambert a position at the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences. Later, Lambert arrived at a proof for Euler’s belief. So the blogger’s claim is simply not correct.

The Rambam, on the other hand, says categorically that it is impossible to arrive at an exact value of Pi, 600 years earlier.

And once again, the blogger does not read the Rambam. He says “Rambam surely didn’t get it from the Gemara, or he would have said so.”

I’m sorry, but this is simply breathtaking. I know that he has no formal training in any scientific field, but I did think he possessed a yeshiva-level familiarity with Jewish sources. Yet everyone at that level knows that the Rambam in particular was unlikely to provide source references, even in Halachic areas. This is true even in the Mishnah Torah, and all the more so his Pirush HaMishnayos. No one who has read even a few Perakim of Rambam could support this blustering assertion.

But furthermore, the Rambam quite clearly states that Chazal knew that Pi was irrational, independent of the question of the Rambam’s source for this information — although, once he tells you that Chazal knew it, there is no longer much of a question. He says: “and since this will never be entirely understood except by approximation, they (Chazal) took a large number.”

In order to avoid this, he offers another demonstration of his penchant for straw man arguments:

Rambam says that Chazal knew that Pi was irrational, and therefore used an approximation. This is a reasonable position. Yet Rambam does NOT say, however, that the fact of Chazal using three proves that they knew it to be irrational.

That is correct, and no one said otherwise. The Rambam says that Chazal knew it to be irrational and therefore used three. That is what Rav Meiselman wrote, and what I wrote.

Understand that Chazal were not afraid of fractions. In order to indicate the length of lunar months, an hour is divided into 1080 portions, because a lunar month is 29 days and 12 + 793/1080 hours. Note that 792/1080 is 11/15 — but Chazal needed greater precision!

It is as the Rambam says, and as Rav Meiselman understands him: in this particular case, there is no precise value. No matter what estimate one uses for Pi, it will remain an estimate. Anyone with a piece of string can tell that Pi isn’t 3 — on the contrary, had Chazal used a more precise estimate such as 3 and 1/7, people like this blogger would have held it up as evidence that Chazal didn’t know math.

Yet further evidence of Chazal’s wisdom!

I think we’re done here.]