While it is known that I do not agree with various aspects of the haredi outlook, I still respect this world very much for its passion and its many wonderful characteristics. And it is exactly because of this that I hope that by writing this essay I am making a small contribution toward helping the haredi community to rectify a crucial ideological mistake, which has brought haredi Judaism into disrepute.
It seems to me that part of the haredi community has adopted an idea that is totally foreign to Judaism but is, strangely enough, fundamental to classical Christianity.
This is a typical example of how – probably because of the experience of exile – Christian ideas have infiltrated several dimensions of haredi Judaism through the back door. This may be true even of other segments of religious Judaism that are not at all haredi.
Saving one’s soul
Classical Christianity teaches that under all circumstances one must “save one’s soul,” and must even sacrifice life itself for the sake of the salvation of one’s soul. This means that one has to live a life of total religious devotion even when it would result in death. And it is exactly against this point of view that the Jewish tradition adamantly protests.
For Judaism, to live is more important than “to be saved.”
The argument that if we don’t live a religious life of shemirat hamitzvot (observance of the commandments), our souls are, by definition, contaminated, and we won’t inherit Olam Haba (the World to Come) is totally rejected within the Jewish tradition.
It is only after we have secured our physical existence that we are obligated to observe the commandments, and it is only then that we have lost out on real life if we did not observe them.
This doesn’t mean that we should violate the commandments so as to live a comfortable life. It just means that we must make sure that we can at least live a simple life that allows us to breathe; that we don’t become deathly ill or completely unable to live a human life.
Why? Because nothing is holier than life itself, not even when we would combine all the divinely-given commandments. Compared to life itself, they are all secondary.
To live is the greatest mitzvah of all
To put it differently: The most important biblical commandments are “U’vacharta ba’chayim” – “And you shall choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19) and “V’chai bahem, v’lo she’yamut bahem” – “And you shall live by them [the mitzvot] and not die because of them” (Leviticus 18:5; Tractate Yoma 85b).
Only three prohibitions override this obligation to preserve life: When one is forced to kill an innocent person in order to save one’s own life; when one is forced to have sexual intercourse with somebody with whom one, by biblical law, it is not allowed to have relations; and when one is forced to worship idols (Yoma 82a). Only in these three cases are we commanded to die rather than transgress.
This is true also in a situation of shmad (religious persecution), when the Jewish community as a whole is forced to be baptized, or compelled by an enemy to violate the laws of Judaism merely for the sake of violation (Sanhedrin 64a).
It is important to remember that we are allowed to take certain reasonable risks – such as driving a car, flying in a plane, crossing the street, or similar things – as long as the chances of being killed are minimal and, in the words of the Talmud, “many have trodden there.” Otherwise, life would become totally impossible (Tractate Shabbat 129b).
For the same reason, we are allowed to try to save somebody else’s life only when it is reasonably certain that we ourselves will remain alive. We are also allowed to put our lives at risk when we need to defend our country and its population, since this means saving the lives of many. Whether one is allowed to voluntarily sacrifice one’s life for another is a matter of dispute.
In all other cases, we are obligated to violate all these commandments. And therein lies the rub.
WHEN PART of the haredi world insists that yeshivot and chederim stay open and large religious gatherings be permitted, etc., that part of the haredi world would be unable to function properly and that social pressure would be required so that many young and not-so-young people would not leave the fold, cease observing the commandments, and thereby forgo the World to Come, it has adopted a Christian idea.
The argument that saving one’s soul is the primary value, and if that means that some people will definitely die – as in the case of coronavirus – then this is preferred, since the people who died will at least not have violated the Torah and will consequently inherit the World to Come, is quintessentially Christian.
What those in the haredi community who believe this do not seem to realize is that they have abandoned one of the most crucial tenets of Judaism: the absolute commandment to preserve life. With the few exceptions mentioned above, preservation of life always has priority.
It is therefore beyond comprehension that a part of the haredi community has rejected a major tenet of religious Judaism.
What Judaism teaches is actually something astonishing: Not only does Jewish law demand that a Jew not observe the mitzvot when they are in danger of death on a single occasion, but that if they are continuously in danger of death, they must violate all the commandments throughout their lives, if that is the only way to stay alive! While such a situation is highly unlikely, theoretically this could mean that one would never be allowed by Jewish law to keep kosher or observe Shabbat, etc., if by doing so, one would constantly be in danger of death. One would have to violate all the commandments for all the years one lives (till 120)!!
In other words, life itself is so important that when we are forced to choose between life and the commandments, we must choose life, even when that life has no Jewish (ritual) context whatsoever.
What we obviously need to ask is: Why? Why is life so important that everything else has to give way, even something as important as the very essence of our identity – our Jewishness and Judaism?
DOES CLASSICAL Christianity not make more sense when it claims that we should always save our souls before the body? What, after all, is the meaning of life if not to serve God?
Apparently, Judaism maintains that there is something about life that is untouchable. Life is God-given and a “substance” that cannot be measured, is beyond all definition, and is totally out of the range of what human beings can ever understand, or even grasp.
That Christianity has taken a different path would seem to be because it considers life more of an obstacle than a virtue. This belief likely owes much to the influence of Plato, who considers the soul to be imprisoned by the body, from which it needs to liberate itself. The body is a hindrance.
Judaism, however, sees the body as a highly important helpmate in the growth of the soul. The soul can grow only through virtuous bodily actions. God created the body not to frustrate the soul but to help it. Otherwise, why have a body? Without the body, the soul has no value, because it can’t accomplish anything without it.
For Judaism, God is to be found within the mundane – in holy deeds. Judaism is, as Abraham Joshua Heschel states, “the theology of the common deed” (The Insecurity of Freedom). God is concerned with everydayness, with the trivialities of life, which can be raised to high levels without ever leaving the common ground. It is not concerned with the mysteries of heaven, but with the blights of society and the affairs of the marketplace. It is there that we find God. “In doing the finite we are able to perceive the infinite” (Man Is Not Alone).
It is for this reason that the need to keep the body alive will always be more important than the need to save the soul. One can save the soul only after the body is secure. Put differently: Saving the body is the highest expression of saving one’s soul.
This is one of the fundamental differences between Judaism and classical Christianity.
It is one of the great tragedies that a sector of the haredi community has adopted a Christian idea.
The misguided notion of Talmud Torah
To be sure, there are other important issues at play in explaining why the haredi community reacts the way it does.
One of these issues is the belief that learning Torah is the ultimate goal of every Jew, and that all other endeavors – such as the functioning and upkeep of society, the running of the Jewish State, its commerce, its agriculture, and more – are of much less importance compared to the study of Torah.
This idea, however, is entirely wrong. This view of Talmud Torah is akin to idol worship. The often-quoted rabbinic statement “V’talmud Torah k’negged kulam,” “the study of Torah is equivalent to all the commandments” (Shabbat 127a), does not mean that Torah learning is the ultimate objective of Judaism. If that were the case, it would belong to the category of the few mitzvot we mentioned above, for which one has to give up one’s life rather than transgress. But it is not.
The meaning of this statement is figurative. Without learning Torah, we would not know how to fulfill the commandments and transform ourselves into more sublime and moral, holy people; we would not know how to run a just society, how to work the land, how to do business, and how to deal with our fellow human beings.
All the commandments depend on learning Torah. Without that knowledge, one wouldn’t know how to observe the commandments. But this has never meant that we need to give up our lives for learning Torah. In fact, doing so is forbidden! Sure, learning Torah is considered to be one of the most virtuous mitzvot and a form of Divine worship. One can only argue that it is of ultimate importance because Torah is the life blood of the Jewish people. But still, it’s not as holy as life itself.
The notion that learning Torah is the ultimate goal, to which all of life should be subordinated, is a false and dangerous one.
May the haredim move away from this Christian idea concerning saving one’s soul and the concomitant mistaken belief about learning Torah. May God bless them