Kenneth Ryesky

Seen to the Eye

The Rabbis of the Talmud have instructed that a fence be built around the Torah, meaning that we should set for ourselves limits well within the Torah’s bare minimums so that people do not inadvertently transgress them.  From this has come the concept of “Mar’at Ayin” (“seen to the eye,” whereby certain activities, though technically not in violation of the Torah’s commandments, are discouraged because an uninformed observer might conclude mistakenly that such activities are acceptable, or that the person who engages in such activities is transgressing the rules.

Mar’at Ayin is often invoked in the context of a religiously-observant Jew entering a non-kosher restaurant to use the restrooms or some purpose other than to eat treif food.  Though not a violation of halakhah, an uninformed observer might come to (A) believe that the restaurant’s food is in fact kosher; or, perhaps worse yet, (B) believe that the restroom user is in fact violating the dictates of the Torah, particularly if the restroom user is known or purports to follow the halakhic dictates.

[Analogous principles are to be found in modern laws of Western nations.  For example, there are numerous American statutes and regulations which require that government officials and employees avoid not only conflicts of interest, but even the appearance of a conflict of interest, in carrying out their official duties.  In the courthouses, jurors are commonly instructed to not speak, even in passing conversation, with lawyers in the cases they are hearing; indeed, early in my legal career I and my group of newly-admitted attorney colleagues were advised by a judge at an orientation session to not even make eye contact in the courthouse hallways with jurors on the cases we were trying.]

Mar’at ayin is playing into how Israeli society is coping (or failing to cope) with the CoronaVirus.  Imprimis, public notice of social distancing rules violations by high government officials (up to and including the Prime Minister and the President) has impeded the efforts to control the spread of the COVID-19.

The operation of the mar’at ayin dynamic in this WuFlu epidemic can be illustrated by comparaing and contrasting two events in Haifa last week.  One event, the wedding of the Seret Vizhnitz Rebbe’s granddaughter (which finally took place following some earlier COVID-related postponements), apparently did not fully comply with the distancing rules, but, more notably, was attended by Deputy Education Minister Meir Porush.  The other Haifa event was a large party of secular participants in apparently more egregious violations the rules.

“The deputy education minister attended a wedding that took place last night for only a few minutes. The deputy minister calls on the public to conduct themselves according to and obey the Health Ministry’s instructions,” said a statement from Porush’s Knesset office.  The statement leaves many issues open.

Firstly, what is meant by “only a few minutes?”  The degree of proximity that constitutes “close contact” warranting self-isolation is defined by the Health Ministry as “a distance of less than two meters and for at least 15 minutes.”  Though it theoretically is possible to pay a courtesy call to a wedding for less than 15 minutes, one must take the notion that Porush in fact actually limited his attendance to only 15 minutes cum grano salis in light of the size of the wedding, Porush’s political position, and the social stature of the wedding hosts.  It is unlikely that a perfunctory social appearance at my own son’s recent wedding affair, attended by fewer people, could have been completed within 15 minutes.

Even stretching to the limits of credibility by accepting that Porush’s wedding attendance in Haifa was in fact “only a few minutes,” Porush, being a political creature who is familiar with the political deal-making processes, should have anticipated the possibility that his presence at the affair would be difficult if not impossible to conceal, and that his political opponents might use it against him and his allies.  For reasons of mar’at ayin, Porush should not have shown up at the wedding at all.

Indeed, the improbability of his public explanation gives a hollow ring to his appeal to the public “to conduct themselves according to and obey the Health Ministry’s instructions.”  Having gotten himself into the predicament, a well-publicized apology would have gained him far more credibility than his “only a few minutes” explanation.

The Haifa police seem to be taking a greater interest in the hassidic wedding than in the secular revelers.  The apparent double standard is certainly not lost on much of the populace, but it is part and parcel of the mar’at ayin operation.  Unlike the party revelers, the wedding attendees would have the world believe that they fastidiously adhere to Jewish law and Torah commandments.  Indeed, “Haredi,” the very term by which they refer to themselves, implies that they “tremble” in fear of violating G‑d’s commandments; moreover, Porush’s political party calls itself the United Torah Judaism party.  Seen to the eyes of the police enforcers are people who are failing to live up to the more stringent standard to which they self-purport.

[As noted in a previous TOI blog posting, “I have significant reservations about using terms such as ‘Haredi’ or ‘ultra-orthodox’ because men who wear a black hats but who submit false claims for government funds, bribe government officials  (including bribes to cover for insurance fires in which responding firefighters are injured), commit tax fraud, and/or cheat on their wives are not more religious than I, and using such terms only perpetuates The Big Lie that they are.”].

The prospect of an overload to the healthcare system from a precipitous influx of Corona patients is real, and poses a danger to all patients, even those not directly infected by the COVID-19 virus.  If, for example, the only available ventilator for a Corona patient is one taken from a hospital operating room, such would preclude the appropriate anesthesia to be availed to a patient undergoing surgery and effectively shut down the operating room.

One question the government regulators should be addressing is what will happen if groups having disproportionate COVID-19 infection rates are seen to the eyes of patients who are denied treatments (and to the eyes of such patients’ families) as recklessly violating the social distancing regulations?  Especially when the examples set by the leaders of these high-infection groups are seen to the eyes as willful and malicious.  Especially if talks of defiance increasingly become the norm in diverse segments of society.

About the Author
Born in Philadelphia, Kenneth lived on Long Island and made Aliyah to Israel. Professionally, he worked as a lawyer in the USA (including as an attorney for the Internal Revenue Service), a college professor and an analyst for the U.S. Department of Defense. He's also a writer and a traveler.
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