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The radical irresponsibility of the Israeli Rabbinate

The greatest, holiest religious act of moral responsibility we are called to do today is simply to sit at home and do nothing -- it really isn't that hard
Illustrative. Jewish men pray outside a synagogue while maintaining social distancing as part of the campaign against the coronavirus outbreak, in Bayit Vegan, Jerusalem, on March 22, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Illustrative. Jewish men pray outside a synagogue while maintaining social distancing as part of the campaign against the coronavirus outbreak, in Bayit Vegan, Jerusalem, on March 22, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

I keep asking myself: in 50 years time, when our grandchildren learn about the “coronavirus” period of history, what will they be asking us? What will be the greatest take away message for the next generation from the moment of history that we currently find ourselves in. And I keep hearing in my head the almost horrified and surprised voice of my grandchild, “But I don’t understand why would people not have just stayed indoors? Why did the rabbis insist on keeping the shuls open? Why would young people not have seen the damage they were doing and kept to the rules – did they not realize they were issuing a death warrant for hundreds and thousands of innocent people?”

Ours is a post-truth world — an era that has seen the erosion of truth and with it the loss of morality and individual responsibility which has manifested itself in one of two ways. Either the clinging on to the status quo absolutism of an age gone-by, bolstered by fear and lack of courage to reinterpret reality accordingly; or the shedding of any value system and hence a slippery slope towards individual hedonism, egocentricity and disavowal of any shared moral responsibility. It is both these mindsets that have stoked the flames of the fire that humanity is battling at this time. One from the side of certain religious institutions that refuse to paradigm shift and let go of the existing structures to ensure life trumps all else, and the other from self-interested youth and others whose inability to see beyond the narrow confines of their own self-centered existence means they are sacrificing many around them; the expectation that their country will bail them out by sending a plane to rescue them, but refusing to be part of the war effort in return.

In my studies on Holocaust theology, one of the central themes I study is theodicy — the question of God’s justice and goodness in the face of evil and suffering. One of the religious answers comes from Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, who states, “Don’t ask where was God ask where was man!” This answer carries much weight for it not only applies to the obvious and outright evils of the Nazi regimes, but also to the more subtle lack of responsibility on the part of world leaders who did little to stop the concentration camps and even some rabbinic leaders who refused to face the danger and extent of the threat, believing God would save them and forbidding their communities to escape or fight back. If we should have learned one thing from the Holocaust it is the concept of responsibility — response — ability — the ability to respond — to care for the plight of others, to make difficult and radical decisions to save life and protect life when necessary.

In the words of Edmund Burke, “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Those who preached passivity, those who refused to stare evil in the face and make courageous and daring decisions allowed evil to be victorious.

Make no mistake: the virus we face today is evil in every sense of the word. Like Amalek, the paradigm of the enemy in the Jewish tradition, it attacks the weak and vulnerable from the back, without us knowing it is approaching, without us realizing it is even there. My husband is a surgeon here in Israel, and I trust him and all the worldwide knowledgeable scientists and medical professionals when they tell us that the ONLY way to fight this enemy is TO ISOLATE — total unequivocal self-isolation. For the elderly among us, this is simply a matter of immediate survival; for the young among us who are in a lesser immediate danger, isolation for the sake of other. The greatest, holiest most virtuous religious act of moral responsibility we are being called upon to do today is to simply sit at home and do nothing — this really can’t be that hard.

This is why I am absolutely enraged and appalled that the Israeli Rabbinate (the “Rabbanut”) is continuing to encourage people to daven in shuls and with a minyan. Don’t get me wrong — I am a big shul-goer; I said kaddish with all the challenges of being a woman for my father the entire year. I believe in the strength and power of communal tefilla (prayer). HOWEVER, I believe that protecting life must take precedence over everything — and most certainly communal tefilla. Thank God, we live in a world where we can make “virtual minyanim” and whether that is halachically acceptable or not will be a question the rabbis will address. We have seen a flurry of online shiurim (Torah classes) and Kabbalat Shabbat and Havdalah ceremonies, and so many unbelievably inspiring and innovative initiatives over the last week.

Now the rabbinic leadership of this country has to rise to the occasion and learn the lessons of the past – the need to make a dramatic yet courageous and responsible decision to literally save lives (probably thousands of lives) and close the shuls. This has been done in London, the United States, Canada, and so many other places — as well as individual rabbis here too in Israel. In new data released by the Health Ministry body and published in Hebrew-language media, almost a quarter of Israelis who contracted the coronavirus in Israel did so at a synagogue. Once again, the Rabbinate here in Israel is refusing to see reality for what is, preferring instead to sit on the bench, to remain passive and to simply cling to what they believe to be halachic precedent.

At various points in our history, the rabbis had to make courageous and novel decision that required them to “reframe” Judaism. The move from priestly to rabbinic Judaism was a paradigm shift of such immense proportions we cannot even begin to imagine how difficult it must have been for both the rabbis and the people to have accepted it. Today, we are being called upon to make what hopefully will be, a temporary paradigm shift of far lesser proportions, perhaps because we have become so stuck in the old paradigms it is so hard for us to do so, but do so we must. For our very mortality and morality is at stake.

Amalek is at our door; evil is staring us in the face. It is unprecedented because it is not an enemy we can see, blame, or attack with our guns and weapons. And precisely for that reason we need to take every precaution and use our minds, common sense, and advice of our commander-in-chief in this battle — which in this instance is the medical advisers and medical establishment — to act in the responsible way. These decisions are painfully difficult and heartbreaking, but to refuse to actively make them, instead remaining passive, is to allow evil to win.

This is a time when tefilla is absolutely crucial — both from the perspective of crying out to God for help and also for each of us individually to find comfort in our dialogue with the Supreme Being. However, above all else in Judaism is the value of life. It trumps all other needs and obligations. We need to cling on to this value. We need to make the responsible choices that will save lives, hundreds and thousands of lives.

I want to relay to my grandchildren the story of how humanity lived up to the call of God by taking the ultimate responsibility, I want to relay stories of unprecedented altruism and positivity, I want them to open their history books and be proud of their religious leaders for deriving inspiration from past trailblazers like Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai in making courageous and novel decisions of religious significance and weight. Let us be able to answer our grandchildren’s and great-grandchildren’s inquiries affirmatively — let us show them that we were the generation that when called upon to take unprecedented measures of mutual responsibility, we lived up to our calling.

About the Author
Tanya White is an educator who teaches Tanach and Jewish Philosophy in Israel and abroad. She is currently pursuing a doctorate in Jewish Thought. She writes a weekly blog on the Parsha combining Jewish thought and current affairs at www.contemplatingtorah.wordpress.com
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