We should be careful not to generalize

“In a religion in which saving life is the highest value ... how can we account for a religious leadership that consistently pursues policies that increase sickness and death?"

IT IS fair to expect more caution and rule-obedience from religiously observant Jews.  (photo credit: GERSHON ELINSON/FLASH90)
IT IS fair to expect more caution and rule-obedience from religiously observant Jews.
(photo credit: GERSHON ELINSON/FLASH90)
Rabbi Dr. Yitz Greenberg is a man who has a lot of ahavat Yisrael (love for the Jewish people). It has been a trademark of his distinguished career. It is imperative that wise, prominent leaders like him be more cautious in their speech lest their words lead to sinat hinam (baseless hatred).
In his recent Jerusalem Post op-ed titled “Religious leadership is also to blame for COVID-19 crisis in Israel,” Greenberg critiques the leaders of the haredi (ultra-Orthodox), National-Religious and Hardal (nationalist ultra-Orthodox) communities as a whole for irresponsible leadership in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
He says, “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 and Hardal, 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.... 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 aftereffects....
“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 National-Religious 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 National-Religious rabbis do not go to university studies.)”
COVID-19 is a mysterious illness for the medical community and certainly for the lay community. Medical professionals have stressed over and over again the importance of wearing masks over our mouths and noses, maintaining two meters of social distancing, and regular disinfecting of hands as the most effective methods of protecting ourselves from this terrible illness.
There is no question that those Orthodox Jewish leaders who were lax in enforcing medical guidelines on coronavirus precautions behaved irresponsibly.
That is especially perplexing, as Greenberg correctly points out, in light of the Torah’s precept that we “choose life.” This is especially made clear by the teaching that saving a life takes precedence over the overwhelming majority of biblical restrictions.
It would be valid to say that those religious leaders who were lax and careless about this are guilty of violating those precepts.
BUT IT is unfair and untrue to generalize and lump all haredi and Hardal leadership into one irresponsible bundle. There were many haredi, religious-Zionist and Hardal religious leaders and their followers who did exactly what responsible Torah-abiding Jews are expected to do. They led by example and preached observance of medical safety directions. And their guidance was followed.
Haredim often stand out because their norms of dress are different from those of other groups. Some in the secular press have an anti-haredi agenda and purposely portray haredim in the worst possible light. Regretfully, both in Israel and in New York City and New York State, haredi neighborhoods lead the rest of the population in infection rates. One should not generalize about all haredi leaders. It is fair to say that too many have been careless and very misguided.
At this time, we are in two-week isolation in a National-Religious community in Gush Etzion. The overall rate of infection has been very low here and in most National-Religious and Hardal communities on both sides of the Green Line. It is not true that Hardal and National-Religious rabbis have been irresponsible. They have been very responsible! The level of college education has nothing to do with responsible leadership. Greenberg is not correct in making that observation.
It is also legitimate to point out that many secular people behaved improperly at the street demonstrations in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. At demonstrations, it is hard to maintain social distancing. Even so, there is no logical rationale not to wear a mask. In Israel, both in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, there were too many secular demonstrators not wearing masks.
Before my recent retirement and my aliyah, I was rabbi of a very large Modern Orthodox synagogue in the United States. Our synagogue leadership was very careful to enforce all of the rules. When we were once again allowed to hold services after three months of shelter-in-place, we organized outdoor services only in compliance with all safety rules. When the authorities allowed indoor services with limitations, we obeyed all of the guidelines, as did many other synagogues.
The example of Rav Yisrael Salanter and the mid-19th century cholera epidemic in Vilna on Yom Kippur is a beautiful story. Many of the details of that story are not absolutely historically proven. I have no doubt that the famed rabbi conducted himself heroically. But that happened in a different time and in a different reality. It is hard to compare the societies of different times and different places, given all of the sundry factors in each case.
Generalizing is something we should avoid. Failure to obey rules is an oversight of human beings. It is fair to expect more caution and rule-obedience from religiously observant Jews. Jewish law expects that every stringency be followed to protect and preserve life. So, of course, it is very disappointing to behold Jews who claim to observe Halacha being lax with precautions to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
As an admirer of Rabbi Dr. Greenberg, I applaud his deep concern for our coreligionists and his important message to the Orthodox community rabbis and leaders. I just wish that he had been a bit more discerning in, and less general in, his allegations and condemnations. Not all haredi leaders were irresponsible, and the overwhelming majority of National-Religious and Hardal leaders were responsible.
The writer is a former rabbi of Young Israel of Woodmere and a past president of the Rabbinical Council of America.