Jonathan Sidley
Jonathan Sidley

We should welcome criticism, even more so of the most devout

A masked woman passes by the Star of David outside a shul. Jewish communities have been disproportionately affected by the virus. (Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Jewish News)
A masked woman passes by the Star of David outside a shul. Jewish communities have been disproportionately affected by the virus. (Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Jewish News)

Reading with disgust the articles and comments, I feel obligated to speak as one who has lost his father to Covid-19 and one for whom the Sholoshim has just ended.

For those devout ones lamenting and criticising this paper for highlighting the transgressions of fellow Jews, why are you upset? Have you not read the prophets who rebuke Israel far worse, e.g. ‘ah sinful nation…’ (Isaiah 1:4)? Is not the Tanakh replete with the condemnation of our ancestors? Do we not read in Pireke Abhoth (PA) 5:20 that ‘any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven will have a constructive outcome’. Just as Moses for a slight transgression couldn’t enter the Promised Land, so we should welcome investigations and criticism, even more so of the most devout.

Before I continue, if one wants to debate with those who deem themselves observant, then only religious arguments are brought to the fore. So, I will argue, ‘for the sake of Heaven’ using only religious texts.

Now, anticipating people saying that I am taking texts out of context, do our rabbis not derive from the commandment ‘you shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk’ (Exodus 23:19), all the laws around prohibiting the consumption of meat and milk together, even forbidding using the same utensil, having them both on the same table concurrently, has it not even expanded to even mean chicken and milk. Do not some go as far as having two kitchens?

The justification for deriving all these restrictions, can be itself derived from the very beginning of Pireke Abhoth ‘… and make a fence for the Tora’. In other words, so that no-one transgresses the law, the rabbis, of blessed memory, developed safe-guards.

I am not alone in calling covid-19 a plague, a pandemic. Infact this very paper quoted some weeks ago that the Grand Rabbi of Israel’s second largest Chasidic sect, Rabbi Yisroel Hager, who teaches that ‘the pandemic is from G-d’. So if we are so diligent in making sure that the law ‘you shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk’ is not transgressed, how more so should we be concerning a commandment which involves life and death.

And if the Tora is a guide for how an observant G-d fearing person should lead their life, then surely there must be a teaching within it, and from that teaching we can extrapolate regulations to guide us through a pandemic. And, if as Rabbi Yisroel Hager, and many others, says it is from G-d, then surely it is a test to see if an observant person will follow His Tora.

Leviticus 13:46 ‘colyeme asher hannega’ bo, yitma tame hu, badhadh yeshebh mihus lammahane moshabho’, ‘all the days that the plague is in him, he shall be unclean, he is unclean, he sits alone, his dwelling is outside of the camp’.

So let’s expand on this commandment, which clearly refers to somebody infected with a disease. ‘All the days the plague is in him’, means this refers only to the period the person is infected with Covid-19. ‘He shall be unclean, he is unclean’ means, whether he feels 100% and is asymptomatic, or just has a slight cough, he must comport himself as one who is showing all the symptoms. ‘He sits alone’, this means that during the time he has Covid-19, whether he feels 100% fine, whether he is wearing a face covering, whether he is standing 2m from somebody, he cannot be in the company of another person, he cannot go to yeshiva, he can not go to communal prayer. ‘His dwelling is outside the camp’, this means that he must self-isolate, he cannot put himself in a situation where people are and he may infect them.

Obviously this commandment doesn’t refer to covid 19, because the Tora was written 3,000 years ago. However the commandment’s purpose is to stop the spread of a disease, it says nothing about it being a punishment for the infected person, it’s only concern is to save communal lives.

Just as expanded earlier that we do not eat chicken cooked in milk, followed by a chocolate sundae, then how much more so should we expand upon a commandment which is about not only saving a single life, but saving all the lives in a community?

We have constantly been told by the medical profession, who have worked tirelessly, that we should all act as if we all have this deadly plague, Covid-19. That even if you have had it, your natural immunity may not last as it has already been proven you can still have this plague a second time. Therefore, we can expound logically that everybody must act as if they have this plague, which means it is a clear teaching, a clear commandment from the Tora that any who take part in communal worship or gather for the sake of learning Torah, which includes schools, even with a mask, even standing 2m apart, even to say Kaddish, have according to the law of Moses transgressed, ‘all the days the plague is’ upon us, there is no exception.

For those who ask, ‘how can we say Kaddish?’, ‘is it not better to pray in a quorum of ten so our prayers are magnified than alone?’. As taught above, in current circumstances we are commanded to ‘dwell apart’, and of praying and studying Tora alone, I, a man who has not spent a lifetime in yeshiva says to you ‘go and learn from the teaching of Rabbi Chalafta ben Dosa of Kfar Chanania (PA 3.7), does he not say, ‘how do we know that this (Divine Presence rests even among one who engages in Tora alone)? For it is said “In every place where I cause My Name to be mentioned, I will come to you and bless you”’.

And to those among the mourners of Israel, like me, who feel obligated to say kaddish for their beloved, I ask you, why are you saying kaddish? Fear not for your loved one’s soul, for kaddish is not said to ease the passage of the soul of the departed for their soul, their spirit is already with hasShem, as it is written the ‘spirit returns to G-d who gave it’ (Ecclesiastes 12:7), there is no delay for we know that even time is a creation of hasShem and each is accountable for their own deeds as it is written “therefore I will judge you… everyone according to his ways, says the L-rd” Ezekiel 18:30, so do not despair that you can not say kaddish for their soul, for this is not the purpose of kaddish.

But without communal prayer, how can we pray and repent? Is it not written ‘if you improve yourself for the better (im-tetibh), you will be forgiven’ (Bereshith 4:7). Did not the L-rd repent of the evil He said He would do to the people of Ninewe without even requiring of them a single sacrifice or communal prayer. For they heeded Jona and obeyed their king. They sat in sackcloth, each in their own home, they called to Him, they turned from their evil ways. Dina dhemalechutha dhina, these rabbis need to reread the book of Yona, read over Yom Kippur, that just as they heeded their king, they too must heed our Prime Minister in obeying the governments’ restrictions, for dina dhemalechutha dhina, as Rabbi Chanina says (PA 3.2) ‘pray for the welfare of the government…’.

‘And you shall live by them’ (Leviticus 18:5), how can you ‘risk your lives to teach Torah’ in keeping schools open during a pandemic as Yisroel Hagar says or have get-togethers ‘as big as you like with no distancing’ as Rabbi Yossi Teitelbaum says (both quotes last weeks JN). Surely these rabbis are guilty of breaking both mitsvoth deorayta (as I have show above) and mitsvoth derabbanan for calling on their congregation to rebel against the state.

How can it be that twice as many Jews are likely to die from Covid-19 than non Jews, (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-55903096), that the rate of infection is 9 times higher the UK average of 7% in Stamford Hill alone (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-56040572). How can those who have broken restrictions, and led others to, not bear communal responsibility as we say ‘col-Yisrael arabhim ze laze’, ‘all of Israel is responsible for one another’, how are these rabbis not responsible for this greatest hillul hasShem since the days of Ezekiel. As news breaks on the BBC of footage of another wedding breaking government restrictions (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-56040572 ), these rabbis who have led their congregations astray, and have allowed them to congregate and not ‘dwell alone’, the blood of all those who have died from Covid and those still suffering is upon them, this is not my opinion, but the opinion of the rabbis as it is said ‘Whoever influences the masses to become meritorious shall not be the cause of sin; but one who influences the masses to sin will not be given the means to repent’ (PA 5.21).

In any other profession, one would lose their job, how can these rabbis still practice?  Have they not caused the greatest harm to the community, spirituality as well as physically.

After hearing all the words of comfort during the online shiva meetings for my father, David ben Yoseph, Derek Sidley, who passed away from Covid-19, I can say he lived his life according to Rabbi Hillel who taught ‘that which is hateful to you, do not do your fellow. That is the whole Torah…’. Though our local orthodox rabbi, who has known my father for almost a quarter of a century, comforted my family by saying my father fulfilled what was required of him in life, as our rabbi comforted us online, all I saw in my righteous anger were so called ‘religious Jews’, dressed in garb no older than 300 years, burning masks as if it was Lag beOmer. When I read your investigation of the weddings, still in the sholoshim, my anger flared up against these sects, how can you spend every second in yeshiva and not practice what the law teaches, hundreds breaking restrictions attending weddings, thousands attending funerals in Israel, ‘ah sinful nation’. I am distraught with anger knowing my father who was careful, he stayed home and shielded caught it, was isolated from us, put into an induced coma alone and passed away. In my anger I ask G-d where is the justice, how can these people still live, how can they they be honoured with the title of rabbi or called devout and knowledgeable in commandments, my father was a better person than all of them combined. I feel as if I am Jona and these Jews are the people of Ninewa and I am waiting for justice, for vengeance. But the Tora teaches us that vengeance is the L-rds (Deuteronomy 32:35) and is not for me to act upon.

But just as the prophets chastised their contemporaries, and I am no prophet, so do they end with a message of hope, and so will I. May these rabbis repent, and earn the right to be called rabbi, may they be given wisdom to teach Israel. May it be His will that we all receive the vaccination speedily, may then the medical profession declare the plague over and our places of worship open. May it be His will that on that day the rabbis be no longer divided in dynasties and sects but unite in one body, speaking in one united voice according to the Tora. May all of Israel return to their houses of worship and those not in mourning witness the mourners of Israel, those at their lowest, stand up and declare before all of Israel ‘yithgaddal wiyithqaddash shemeh rabba’, ‘May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified’, ‘May He Who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace upon us, and upon all Israel’, may the redeemer will come to Zion (Isaiah 59:20) wi’imuru: Amen. Im tetibh.

 

About the Author
Jonathan is a British Jew and dad of two, who enjoys classical history
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