The State of Israel is in lockdown, trying to regain control of the coronavirus infection rate which has spiraled out of control. The main blame rests with the prime minister who betrayed his commitment to Blue and White to put politics aside and deal with the pandemic as only a majority coalition could do.
Nevertheless, I would like to focus this column on a different issue; the role and behavior of religious leadership throughout this struggle with the coronavirus. I refer mostly to haredi leadership, but include the religious Zionist leadership as well.
By and large the religious leadership has been a drag on the efforts to contain the pandemic. Where it has not outright encouraged policies that increased transmission, it often posed obstacles to needed actions. Rabbis, both haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and hardal (nationalist haredi), insisted that the yeshivot learning Torah should go on even though they were spreading the virus. Religious political leaders stood by or attended weddings and mass religious gatherings that super spread the disease. Some rabbis proclaimed that observant Jews (or those who gave to their tzedaka) would be safe from the plague. They fought the traffic light disease control policy because it affected haredi areas more than others. This differential restriction was needed due to the fact that there were higher rates of infection in haredi areas. But no matter. While the coronavirus spread rapidly they delayed the policy until it was too late to be effective. They harassed and undermined the coronavirus Czar for pushing for needed polic
ies of control and reduction. They fought to keep synagogues open even though indoor clustering of people is the largest channel of virus spread. The outcome is that haredi and traditional religious communities have the highest rates of infection, other than Arabs, and disproportionate numbers of deaths and serious cases with damaging after effects.
How can religious leaders committed to a Torah that commands, “Choose life” and prohibits behaviors that harm people preach and give rulings that multiply the ravages of coronavirus?
In the eighth century BCE, the prophet Isaiah was asked this question. How to explain that in his time, prophets and leaders speaking to devout observant Jews were giving bad guidance and endorsing disastrous policies?
He answered, “Because this people approached Me [God] (with prayer and sacrifice) yet only with lip service... their reverence for Me is only a commandment learned by rote” (Isaiah 29:13). In other words, the devout Jews had lost sight of what God wants and what values are meant to be expressed in religious living. Their observance was based on conformity, ingrained habit, and doing what the religious community expected. As a result, their leadership was smitten with confusion and bad judgment and giving bad guidance.
In a religion in which saving life is the highest value, and even overrides 99% of all commandments, how can we account for a religious leadership that consistently pursues policies that increase sickness and death?
This is the tragedy of the haredi Jewish leaders and their fellow travelers hardal and traditionalist dati leumi leaders. They cut off from secular learning and modern culture lest those undermine their religious commitment and connection to God. (Following their model to this day, the dati leumi rabbis do not go to university studies.) To resist the seduction of modern culture—including joining the army, and going to work to get out of poverty—the haredi community doubled down on stressing continuity above all, and on conformity, communal solidarity and activity. This includes rejection of any change or even treating respectfully any different approaches.
The consequences of these attitudes showed up in absolutely upholding all inherited practices such as women’s second class status including allowing get abuse to ruin lives of agunot. Dati leumi rabbis rejected legitimate feminism. They justified homophobia, by insistence that gayness is not a different biological orientation but deviant behavior. The defensive insistence on no change led to the claim that anything found in the Torah cannot be judged or modified. One must suppress ethical questions or conscience because God defines what is ethical.
In haredi circles, ‘daas Torah,’ the opinions of gedolim (leading rabbis), became like the word of God, infallible and unappealable. This was even in areas where the rabbis had no secular education or experience. The sad result was that God’s will and the central value of Judaism to place life uppermost was lost sight of. The commandment “Choose life”—to act and live on the side of life, including upholding the quality of life and dignity of every human being in the image of God—was shunted aside. How else can we explain the behavior of the representative of the Gerer rebbe, Minister Yaakov Litzman? He improperly used his clout and political standing to protect a haredi female sexual abuser (of haredi women!) from extradition to Australia to face justice.
For fear that closing yeshivot and synagogues would leave the people without circles to conform to and the students might drift away, the bulk of religious leadership chose to expose people to heightened risk of sickness. In stark contrast, Maimonides lashed out at religious leaders who interpret the halacha to increase Sabbath observance at the price of doing less life saving activities on Shabbat. He said that by such ruling, they make the Torah’s commandment into “cruel, revengeful behaviors in the world” (Maimonides, Hilkhot Shabbat, ch. 2 h. 3). Anyone who rules that in order to preserve Torah we must risk increased sickness and death, says Maimonides, exemplifies the prophet Ezekiel’s curse on the Jewish people that “I [God] gave them statutes that were no good, commandments which people cannot live by them” (Ezekiel 20:25).
Throughout the policy debate, religious leadership ignored the real issue—to reduce infection— and argued that if secular Israelis were allowed to demonstrate, why should religious people not congregate? There is no commandment in the Torah: “You shall not be a freier.” There are dozens of commandments to stop sickness, protect life, not harm people. The religious leadership has simply lost sight that the Torah’s central value—expressed in ritual and ethics—is to increase life and the quality of life in every act that we do.
As religious leaders upholding a Torat Hayyim, a life affirming Torah, they should have been the first to close down religious celebrations and weddings and services and set an example for the secular of how to uphold the sanctity of life through social distancing. Sadly, the dati leumi rabbinate has mostly stood by and been inactive on this issue while the religious Zionist political leadership (except for Bennett) has helped Netanyahu divert energy toward political infighting and attacks on the legal system. They certainly have not led the fight for stronger public health policies.
In 1848, Rabbi Israel Salanter faced the crisis of a cholera epidemic rapidly spreading in Vilna. Salanter organized a corps of yeshiva students to tend to the sick, to bring food and water, and to run errands to help the isolated and vulnerable. Salanter later founded the Mussar/ethics movement in Orthodoxy because he saw that Orthodoxy had become a movement of social conformity and denial of change, or choice. He believed that such a religious ethic could not stand up to the challenges of modern life, and the attraction of its benefits. The key was to restore the focus on ethics in the Torah and on a dynamic relationship to God. Then people would choose to live a life of Torah that put at the center, respect and honor for every human being in the image of God.
The doctors told Salanter that, in their medical opinion, every Jew who fasted on Yom Kippur would raise his/her risk of catching cholera disease. Furthermore, instead of being cooped up with the crowds all day in shul, people should cut the prayers short and go for walks in the open air. Salanter later wrote to a student that in a time of an epidemic, the religious Golden Rule was, “to observe strictly the behaviors we are instructed by the doctors to follow: we go by the light of their words by the order of our religion” (Or Yisrael letter 22). In other words, pikuach nefesh means that God is commanding us to strictly follow the best medical judgment in all our behaviors.
Salanter saw that the official rabbinate of Vilna was unwilling to say publicly that people should not fast. (They were willing to allow individual requests with rulings to follow medical advice, but he felt that only a general ruling would save the lives of those who might not ask.) He posted signs all over Vilna and his synagogues instructing people to follow the doctors’ orders. On Yom Kippur morning, seeing that many people could not bring themselves to break the fast, Salanter went up to the bimah of the Great Synagogue and said (approximately), ‘by authority of the Torah, which commands us to uphold life, above all, we instruct all Torah-true Jews to eat.’ He made kiddush and broke the fast. He called up congregants, many weeping, and they followed his example. There are reports that he went from synagogue to synagogue, to get as many people as possible to choose life.
All of Orthodoxy must consult together how to transform the culture and stop the cruel interpretations of halacha that continue to degrade women, demonize gays, and divert Torah from putting life first. Orthodoxy must work together to shift from the conviction that it alone has the whole truth and has nothing to learn from religious others or from science. To improve performance in confronting pandemics, the observant communities must follow Salanter’s example.
The key to Salanter’s greatness was to shift from a Torah of conformity and social cohesion to a Torah of deep relationship to God, high ethical demands and values as well as individual and communal religious search.
Rabbi Israel Salanter, where are you when we need you?
The writer is President of the J.J. Greenberg Institute for the Advancement of Jewish Life and Senior Scholar in Residence at the Hadar Institute of New York and Jerusalem.