Tuesday, November 18, 2008

My Reaction to Rav Kanievsky's "Psak" About Bomb Shelters On Chanukka

I have been following this whole end-of-days trend for about a year now -- it keeps me amused -- and it keeps getting more and more interesting. The latest is that Rav Chaim Kanievsky, shlita, a gadol, whom I respect, issued a "psak" about having a wedding in Israel or the United States, and he purportedly said in the course of this, and as part of a motivating factor, that in Israel at Chanukka time they would be in bomb shelters.

I don't know if it this really happened as reported: Geulah Perspectives, who first reported it, took down the blogpost in the meantime, while he does some more research to substantiate it -- since it attracted a lot of attention, has the potential to possibly embarrass Rav Kanievsky if it does not come to pass. I saved a copy of it and posted it as if it happened in 2005 (though it happened in 2008), in order to be able to discuss it at more length. It is thus available here. Even if it happened, I would not describe all this as a "psak" but rather as an "eitzah," some good advice.

Let us assume, for the purpose of discussing this, that Rav Kanievsky actually did say this. It then seems to me that there Lewis' trilemma applies -- Lord, Liar, Lunatic. I will modify it afterwards, but just to cast it in these terms:
  1. Lord: Rav Kanievsky is a gadol baTorah, and thus has some level of ruach hakodesh. He thus is somehow tapped into something On High, and knows something will occur by Chanukkah. (Or someone in government, whom he trusts, confided this to him.)
  2. Liar: He is just pulling this out of his black hat to mess with people, and didn't think this would get out. And this will then blow up in his face.
  3. Lunatic: He is not really receiving messages from On High, but he thinks he is. And this will then perhaps degrade his stature if Chanukkah passes without incident.
I don't believe anything is going to happen on Chanukkah, which would then seem to rule out (1), except we can say that Hashem changed the decree because of our teshuvah. And I would really rule out (2), because I truly think it is absurd to accuse Rav Kanievsky of this? Does this, chas veshalom, leave us with option (3), if we are to reject option (1)?

I don't think so.

According to the DSM IV, used to perform diagnoses of psychological issues, a belief cannot be labelled a delusion if the person's culture or subculture maintains this. This has recently been problematic, as reported by Slashdot, and the New York Times, because a bunch of folks with mond-control delusions have formed a community on the Web. Of course, the excluding factor there should be that the culture is one which specifically grew up around, and because of, the delusion. But it is still problematic, and I wonder if that was what David Malki was thinking of when he recently produced this WonderMark comic strip, reproduced below:

Now, this exclusion is important, and true in many cases. For example, it is what prevents a psychologist from calling me delusional based on a belief in Torah MiSinai. Or for that matter, any religious belief.

I think we then have to modify Lewis' trilemma, above, in terms of redefining this "lunacy." Because it is not lunacy if it is part of your culture.

Is this part of Rav Kanievsky's culture? I think it very well might be. Thus, I have a number of different beliefs from him, because he is chareidi. And chareidim are wonderful, and there are a number of wonderful aspects to chareidi Judaism and culture. But there are aspects which I think are not the optimal way of living Jewishly -- or else I would be practicing differently. I disagree with the idea of certain modern-day rabbis confidently explaining to us why certain tragedies occurred. And the dismissal of the importance of knowing about Hashem's creation -- science -- has led in some cases to some chareidim seeking fortunetellers and women who cast lead. I could go on, but I won't.

The question, to my mind, is whether Rav Kanievsky is leading here or being led. There is nothing wrong with even a gadol being led, sometimes. He is a human being, embedded in a particular culture, in a particular society, and certain things make perfect sense in that particular environment. During Shabtai Tzvi's time, many great and holy rabbis fell for that nonsense, and it makes sense once we truly understand the culture at that time and that place. And as we know from the letter from Rebbetzin Kanievsky, his wife is a believer in what I would term segulah-ism.

There have been what I personally would consider certain excessively silly proofs about the end-of-days, such as the Obama gematria or Torah Code. And there have been the words of autistics, or rather, the accidental messages being conveyed but really created by the unwitting facilitators. And there have been the dreams at Dreaming Of Mashiach. But there have also been the words of great rabbis and kabbalists. We have Rav Kaduri, z"l, who as covered recently, based on the writings of the Gra, expected last year to be the year mashiach arrived, and who said that he met mashiach. We have the rabbis dreaming of the Chafetz Chaim, telling them mashiach is soon arriving. We have the rabbi with the watches from the Baba Sali's son, now both standing at 12:00 purportedly. (More on that in another post, bli neder.) And the former, I think, is interacting with the latter, both ways, reinforcing and strengthening the message. And when everyone around you believes it, it is easy to believe it to, and when thinking about it all day, as the gemara says, it will enter your dreams as well.

They thought mashiach would come by Rosh haShanah. And when that didn't happen, by Succot. Now that Succot has passed, they look to the next Jewish holiday, Chanukkah. And in the email that is going around, Rav Ovadia Yosef wept when he heard that Birchat HaChamah will occur on erev Pesach. So it is natural to think some cataclysmic event will happen this coming Chanukkah. Even though it well might not.

I don't know if Rav Kanievsky came up with this himself, or heard it from somewhere and believed it. Geulah Perspectives had the same idea, when he wrote:
I was personally curious as to how Rav Kanievsky knows this information, perhaps through Ruach Hakodesh, or perhaps he's had conversations with Moshiach, or maybe from learning Kabbalah or the sifrei HaGra? Rav Levy gave me a sheepish look and said that of course he can't answer that, but he affirmed that on a number of occasions in the past when they have asked Rav Kanievsky shailos, he clearly had Ruach Hakodesh.
This ruach hakodesh approach would be the equivalent of (1), Lord. But it is also possible that he dreamed it though it was not prophetic, because of the cacaphony of voices around him saying the same thing. Or it is also possible he got it from Sifrei HaGra, which was where Rav Kaduri, zatzal, got the idea. Or he heard some dvar Torah to this effect from someone he interacts with, whom he respects. And if so, it is not (3), but something else -- subculture rather than delusion.

I don't think any less of Rav Pappa for believing in sheidim, even though I do not believe they exist, or existed. And I don't think any less of Ramban for believing in the four elements, even though I do not agree that that science is correct. And the same will be true here, if people in Israel are not in bomb shelters on Chanukka, and if the Israeli real estate market does not collapse in a few months.

All of this is all assuming, of course, he said what is reported.


Devorah said...

Does anyone know if this quote from Rav Kanievsky is true?
(link to original story at end of quote)

Posted: 06.NOV.08
In a story originally reported by News1 and now being covered by a number of chareidi media outlets in Israel, Harav Chaim Kanievsky is being quoted as saying that the election of Barack Obama to serve as president of the United States is not the first time that a black individual has risen to malchus, a position of power. In Yiddishkeit, those of dark complexion are believed to originate from Chom, son of Noach, about whom the Torah states, “Eved yihyeh l’echov” (he shall be a servant to his brothers - Sheim and Yefes). Rav Kanievsky said that the President-Elect can be described as personifying “eved ki yimloch - a servant who rules,” stating that the famous King Hurdus, who rebuilt the Bais Hamikdosh in unbelievable fashion, as discussed in detail in the Gemara, was also black and rose to a position of power. Hurdus, Rav Chaim noted, caused tremendous tzaros for Klal Yisroel, as the Gemara relates.
The News1 report states that Hurdus, whose family converted to Judaism, began his dominion over the kingdom of Yehudah in the year 37 BCE after Yerushalayim was conquered from the last king of the Chashmonaim, Mattisyahu Antigonis. Hurdus ruled under the Romans, who provided him with security and other support to secure his power.

Rav Kanievsky concluded his remarks regarding the recent elections by stating, “There is nothing to worry about. Yihyeh b’seder. It will be okay.”

Matzav.com placed a call to a resident of Bnei Brak who is a confidante of someone who frequents Rav Chaim’s home. At present, we have not been able to confirm the veracity of the above report.


Anonymous said...

"Matzav.com placed a call to a resident of Bnei Brak who is a confidante of someone who frequents Rav Chaim’s home. At present, we have not been able to confirm the veracity of the above report."

This says it all. Great investigative technique. I'm sure Matzav will get to the bottom of this now. After all, what source could possibly be more reliable?


joshwaxman said...

they might, if that is the way things are done.

I don't know if he said it, and particularly the parts about the slave and Herod being black, in the conflicting reports, but *if* he did, it pays to realize that in Israel, where there is not such a large population of African descent, or a painful history of slavery, such remarks to not resonate the same way, and were probably intended differently from the way some might viscerally react to it.

but I have no idea of the veracity of the above report.

Kol Tuv,

Anonymous said...

"For example, it is what prevents a psychologist from calling me delusional based on a belief in Torah MiSinai. Or for that matter, any religious belief."

On the contrary, doesn't it show the oppposite? Why should the number of people who believe a delusion change it's status as a delusion in those who believe it? As marker of mental health, maybe, but not a delusion.


  1. The act or process of deluding.
  2. The state of being deluded.
2. A false belief or opinion: labored under the delusion that success was at hand.
3. Psychiatry. A false belief strongly held in spite of invalidating evidence, especially as a symptom of mental illness: delusions of persecution.

So you're delusional in meanings 1.2 and 2, just not meaning 3.

joshwaxman said...

Wow, you mean I was only using the psychological definition? Thanks for pointing it out. I guess it was not clear by my reference to the DSM IV and to psychologists making the declaration of delusion.

Yes, we argue on this point. Fine. And I also dislike it when people anonymously make snide comments here.

Kol Tuv,

Anonymous said...

what do you mean no sheidem existed, the gemoro is full of them, see story of shlomo hamelech with ashmadai gittin, gemoro in arvei pesachim where amoroim met with sheidim and decreed on them not to enter inhabited areas and so on I could quote tens of sources. If you do not beleive in the gemoro chas vesholom than you do not believe in tora shbaal peh and have no portion in the jewish people. unless you clarify your comment I see your blog is apikorsus and ossur to read.

joshwaxman said...

i see i am being attacked from the right and from the left. so be it.

how to understand those gemaras (whether aggada in these cases is meant literally, or whether they ascribed certain things to sheidim based on a belief in their existence, which *was* entirely rational in their day) is a good question, and one perhaps I will eventually address here. But it *seems* that Ibn Ezra and Rambam also denied the existence of sheidim, despite the gemaras to the contrary. you could also stop reading them, i suppose.

kol tuv,

Anonymous said...


As Josh has pointed out there were Rishonim who denied the literal existence of Sheidim... this does not at all make them into Apikorsim who reject Torah SheBa'al Peh, heaven forbid.

Similarly those of us who adopt their approach clearly have what and on whom to rely upon.

Not everything is intended to be taken literally, the role that Sheidim play in the Gemara encompasses a wide range of functions, such as explaining scientific phenomena that could otherwise not be accounted for at the time, the forces of psychological duress or mental illness (such as a "sheid" forcing one to eat matzah), or simply as a literary tool intended to inculcate an ethical or moral message (such as your Aggadic reference to Shelomo and Ashmadai).

If you find this unsatisfying and still see a need to rely on some later authority with a non-rationalist oriented background you can look towards the Kotzker Rebbe who also claimed that Sheidim do not exist.

joshwaxman said...


I just put up a quick discussion of the Ibn Ezra, here as a post. but of course that is not the end of a very lengthy topic.

Akiva said...

I always chuckle whenever someone brings up the 100% literalness and absolute accuracy of the Gemora. While there is no question it is Torah m'Sinia, it is "baal peh", not the written Torah where every letter is exact but discussions in the vernacular of the time.

Clearly there are no discussions of future technology - for even if (per the opinion of the strict literalists) they had full navua and knew all future science and technology to come, even if that were to be the case how could they describe it to the people of their time? Certainly only in the terms of the time that people could relate to.

Yet by discussing halachot thoroughly in the venacular, they gave us sufficient information to apply it for future generations and technology.

To the literalist I ask: When was the last time you went for a bleeding or an application of leeches? Why would you use modern medicine and not rely on the medical treatments of the Gemora?


Blog Widget by LinkWithin