Let’s Get Our Religious Priorities Right

At the start of the Coronavirus crisis, I wrote that I was impressed by the initial response of the Orthodox leadership, which used the force of the pulpit to encourage people to avoid going out if they were not feeling well or were in quarantine, and to provide religiously meaningful opportunities from home, in order to lessen people’s temptations to go out for religious reasons.

I was also impressed by the Israeli government, which shut things down quickly and effectively in order to decrease the number of Coronavirus cases. Unfortunately, since then, Israel quickly reopened, and failed to communicate effectively that Coronavirus was not over. The result was a sharp rise in the number of Coronavirus cases, followed by a reclosing of many venues and limits on public gatherings.

The Orthodox leadership, perhaps, should not be expected to be better than the government leadership, which sets the tone regarding the seriousness of the Coronavirus threat. But now that the government is taking it seriously, one would expect the Orthodox leadership to get on board, and to start encouraging its constituents to stay home once more.

Instead, MK Aryeh Deri, from the Ultra-Orthodox Shas party, was bragging that when the Health Ministry wanted to cap prayer services at 20 people, he pushed them up to 50. I don’t understand why someone would brag that they might be endangering lives!

Meanwhile, a few days after there was a Coronavirus outbreak at a Yeshiva that infected over 100 people, MK Moshe Gafni from the Ultra-Orthodox UTJ party threatened to leave the government if it decided to shut down yeshivas.

As an Orthodox Jew, I don’t understand this statement. I see preserving life and health as a Jewish value that can be found in the Torah and throughout rabbinic literature.

In Judaism, there are two types of “sins”: There is violating a negative commandment, and there is failing to fulfill a positive commandment. In general, it is worse to violate a negative commandment than to simply refrain from carrying out a positive commandment.

According to Jewish law, saving a life supersedes all mitzvot, except for idolatry, a specific set of forbidden sexual violations, and murder.  For example, one is allowed -and perhaps obligated -to violate Shabbat, in order to save a life. If a doctor determines that a person’s life is in danger if they fast, then that person is obligated to eat on Yom Kippur, even though eating on Yom Kippur is considered a very serious sin, and the risk to the person’s life if they fast is not definite, or immediate.

 This is not some modern, humanist view. It is a view that stems from the Talmud and continues through Maimonides, to the Shulchan Aruch. It is the mainstream opinion of Jewish rabbinic literature that predates Modern Humanism.

In the case of Coronavirus, the medical experts have determined that there is a definite risk to life if there are certain types of social gatherings -both to the people present, and to their wider web of friends and family. Yet the “sin” that is being requested by the health authorities is not to violate a negative commandment, such as eating on Yom Kippur, but rather, to refrain from carrying out the positive commandments of public prayer, and Torah study.

Even then, the medical experts were not saying that no public prayer was ok. They were simply trying to limit the size of indoor prayer services to 20 people at a time. There could be more outdoors services, or staggered, smaller prayer services in synagogue. In other words: The Health Ministry wasn’t asking anyone to do even the minor sin of failing to fulfill a positive commandment. It was simply asking to enact regulations that would make it slightly less convenient to fulfill a positive commandment.

Similarly, shutting down a yeshiva does not prevent someone from studying Torah. Of course, it is easier to study Torah at the yeshiva, which has a fully stocked library of holy books, as well as students and teachers who one can study with. But as long as one has some books at home, it is possible to study Torah in one’s living room.

From a Jewish legal perspective, it may be forbidden to endanger one’s own life, as well as the life of others. This is encapsulated in the religious dictum, ““You shall guard yourselves mightily”. This dictum has Jewish legal implications; for example, it has been used to justify rulings claiming that it would violate Jewish law to smoke cigarettes.

In this case, one would be violating the negative commandment of not endangering health -not in order to fulfill a definite positive commandment that could only come at the expense of the negative, but rather, in order to fulfill a positive commandment in a more convenient way.

In the name of preserving the Jewish tradition, MKS Deri and Gafni are violating the very traditions that they claim to uphold. They warp the Torah when they present it as something that prioritizes ritual worship over human life.

Perhaps this would bother me less, were it not for the fact that, as representatives of Ultra-Orthodox parties, they are seen as legitimate representatives of Orthodox Judaism. Many secular Israelis I talk to believe that Orthodox Judaism is what they see from the Ultra-Orthodox parties. Of course, that may be an indictment of the Israeli school system. But it is also the reality in which we live.

And that matters, because public opinion of Torah-observant Jews has a Jewish legal value. Many laws that relate to non-Jews are justified in the Talmud as “because of the way of peace” (between Jews and non-Jews) or “because of (the need to prevent) hatred (from non-Jews)”.  It is true that these concepts are mainly applied to situations where Jews are living as a minority, whereas in Israel Jews are a majority. However, there is also the concept of “sanctification of God’s name” and “desecration of God’s name”, which applies within a Jewish social context as well. What all these concepts have in common, is that they are legitimate Jewish legal reasons to enforce certain norms because of the perception that other people will have of observant Jews, and the Torah that they represent.

Imagine a world in which the Ultra-Orthodox parties were pushing for safe Coronavirus regulations, while also leading the fight to ensure that people whose livelihoods were affected by said regulations received proper compensation. In a world like that, people would assume that Judaism must really care about people -that God must really care about people -and that would be a sanctification of God’s name.

As it is, in the absence of any knowledge about Judaism, based on watching its Knesset representatives, one would assume that God prioritizes Torah study and public prayer about all, including human life.

It is for the mistake, of assuming that God values ritual worship over religious obligations to our fellow humans, that the Temple was destroyed. As we go into the three weeks of mourning for the Temple’s destruction, wondering what the balance should be between religious ritual and public safety, perhaps we had best have the prophecy of Isaiah, sent by God to forewarn of the Temple’s destruction, in our ears:

“1:1 To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me? saith the LORD; I am full of the burnt-offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he-goats. 12 When ye come to appear before Me, who hath required this at your hand, to trample My courts? 13 Bring no more vain oblations; it is an offering of abomination unto Me; new moon and sabbath, the holding of convocations–I cannot endure iniquity along with the solemn assembly. 14 Your new moons and your appointed seasons My soul hateth; they are a burden unto Me; I am weary to bear them. 15 And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide Mine eyes from you; yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear; your hands are full of blood. 16 Wash you, make you clean, put away the evil of your doings from before Mine eyes, cease to do evil; 17 Learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. {S} 18 Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD; though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. 19 If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land; 20 But if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword; for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken.”

About the Author
Shayna Abramson, a part-Brazilian native Manhattanite, studied History and Jewish Studies at Johns Hopkins University before moving to Jerusalem. She has also spent some time studying Torah at the Drisha Institute in Manhattan, and has a passion for soccer and poetry. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in Political Science from Hebrew University, and is a rabbinic fellow at Beit Midrash Har'el.
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