In light of Jeffrey Tucker’s recent article, among others, which criticized his tribe of elite libertarians for their failed response to the covid crisis, I would like to offer a detailed critique of my own tribe and its failed response.
It is important to emphasize that the process of calling out one’s own tribe is quite painful. As others have stated, the realization that our role models and peers who were integral to helping us form our own worldviews and moral systems failed in the face of adversity can be a soul-wrenching experience.
Despite witnessing many of the horrors of the past few years, including unnecessary mass excess mortality and huge spikes in poverty rates on a global scale, the most painful internal scars I bear relate to the disappointment in those I once thought would stand in the breach with me to protect the vulnerable and young among us.
These were the ones whom I believed shared a world ethic with me based on our religion and the philosophy we studied together, yet they failed to demonstrate allegiance to these values. Through websites and apps like Brownstone, Twitter, and more I have been able to find others who held ethical standards similar to my own, but that can never truly replace what I lost when my own tribe let me down catastrophically.
What is Modern Orthodox Judaism?
The Modern Orthodox movement in Judaism, of which I had always considered myself a card-carrying member, can trace its roots back to 19th century Europe. Following Napoleon’s reforms, Jews were generally allowed and encouraged to leave their segregated villages and fully integrate into the modern industrial secular society. While many Jews were immediately drawn by this emancipation to leave behind many of the norms and requirements of an orthodox Jewish lifestyle, an opposing Jewish approach chose to reject as much of this modernity and emancipation as possible to help ensure a continuation of Jewish observance and traditions.
These polar camps represent the early formations of what are now considered the Reform and Reconstructionist movements on the one hand, and the Ultra-Orthodox movement, on the other. In between these opposing camps, the Modern Orthodox movement rose to the challenge of trying to integrate a fully Torah-observant lifestyle as much as possible into the new cosmopolitan secular society.
The proper philosophical nature and practical elements of balancing these two opposing lifestyles has been the subject of a pantheon of literature over the past two centuries, and a variety of paths have emerged across this wide spectrum of Jewish society. Major issues that Modern Orthodoxy confronts include integrating modern technology into Jewish observance, meshing breakthroughs in scientific understanding with Jewish and Biblical theology, and maintaining a high sense of commitment to Jewish values while generally interacting with the secular world.
This integration requires not only high levels of understanding of Jewish law and theology, but also a high level of understanding of science and modern culture. Modern Orthodox leaders, both lay and rabbinic, have therefore always had to be educated and knowledgeable at the highest degree in two separate, distinct, and often conflicting fields of study. This dual commitment to understanding was the only way the Jewish faith could be integrated with modern society.
Indeed, the most revered leaders of this movement for many years were those who held the dual advanced titles of both Rabbi and Doctor, demonstrating advanced education in both worlds. For example, Rabbis who are investigating the religious response to organ donation must have up-to-date knowledge of both the span of related Jewish law, including the broad subjects of death and murder, and the medical research on brain death and organ donation.
Similarly, Rabbis who attempt to advise on matters of Shabbat observance need to have an advanced understanding of electronic systems in order to understand what modern day marvels, like hearing aids, may or may not be used on the Sabbath, and if so, in what manner.
By its very nature, Modern Orthodoxy is intimately familiar with both the permanently unsettled nature of scientific thought, and the back and forth dialogue that is the backbone of legal discourse. The need to be well-informed and fully engaged with both modern science and religious values, always seeking to balance both, should have made the Modern Orthodox rabbis most prepared to handle the ethical and scientific conundrums that evolved in March of 2020.
Replacing G-d with “experts”
And yet, the Modern Orthodox Rabbinic leadership, both in the US and in Israel, were some of the earliest and most dedicated to the warped scientific framework and extralegal approach underlying obedience to the new rules of covid enforcement. Indeed, early on, the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County was one of the first religious institutions in the country to voluntarily cancel all religious services, claiming that Jews were religiously required to stay home, well before any government edicts were issued.
The Jewish concept of acting Lifnim Mishurat hadin, acting beyond the requirements of the law, was used as the basis for imposing extra requirements on congregations from this point and through today. Every time a new seasonal wave developed, these same rabbis were first to blame their own flocks for the inevitable spread of a sub-microscopic airborne virus, referring to them as stubborn for not achieving the impossible, and using similar terminology G-d used to express disappointment in the Biblical Israelites.
Yet these rabbis were never able to bring a single example of another disease that was eradicated from existence using this methodology, nor show where biblical literature directs us to try to control complex chaotic natural processes, other than through prayer and repentance. Independent critical analysis, including the acknowledgment of contradictory evidence, was sorely lacking from a rabbinate that previously prided itself on this very quality. Instead of engaging in rational discourse and providing a calming platform, the rabbinic leadership chose to perpetuate the fear and panic that was so rampant in the media.
Unfortunately, the previous reverence of elite university credentials as a demonstration of high-level integration with modern society led to an ironic trend of elevating credentialed “experts” to a near prophet-like level. The repeated failure of many of these experts and their models to scientifically predict anything in advance never seemed to register as problematic once this prophet-like status was granted.
A group of self-identified “Jewish Faucis,” those with both a medical degree and rabbinic ordination, put themselves at the center of many communal religious decisions. Rabbi Dr Aaron Glatt, head of infectious diseases at Mt Sinai hospital, for example, made a name for himself by issuing constant Facebook messages and emails to the Jewish community, explaining how successful or not their social distancing had been during the repeating seasonal waves.
At no point did he bother to explain why countries like Sweden, or states like Florida and Georgia were indistinguishable in nearly every all-cause mortality and morbidity dataset, while he repeatedly declared anyone who disagreed with him as a purveyor of sheker, lies evil in the ways of G-d. Similarly, WhatsApp groups were created by rabbis so they could coordinate the strictness of their responses and the uniformity of their positions across the globe, not allowing room to discuss scientific evidence that in any way conflicted with their established opinions.
The ultimate irony of this approach is that obedience to an individual to make decisions, rather than relying on verifiable independent sources, is one of the key ways Modern Orthodox Jews distinguished themselves from their Ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic counterparts. Da’at Torah, a practice of the Ultra-Orthodox, encourages individuals to search for answers and direction on all life topics specifically from Torah leaders, like Hasidic Rabbis.
This practice has widely been criticized by the Modern Orthodox for its lack of intellectual seriousness, and due to the fact that Judaism does not require unquestioning obedience to anyone but G-d himself. Ironically, this exalted level of obedience for decision-making on all topics that was not granted to Hasidic rabbis was instead laid upon supposed “experts,” like Drs. Fauci and Birx, or Rabbi Dr Aaron Glatt.
In April of 2020, Rabbi Dr Yitz Greenberg even panned the Ultra-Orthodox’s reliance on magical ideas like “natural immunity” during covid, as opposed to the Modern Orthodoxy’s more scientific reliance on “experts.” As documented elsewhere, the Ultra-Orthodox communities were doing community antibody studies as early as April 2020, similar to the works of Drs. John Ioannidis and Jay Bhattacharya at that time, and had familiarized themselves with the accomplishments of Anders Tegnell in Sweden, who seemed to be the only public health figure in the OECD who adhered to pre-2020 WHO pandemic guidelines.
To this day, I am still unsure how Greenberg, or anyone else in the Modern Orthodox community, believed that if we just obeyed the “experts” and stayed home, then a few quadrillion viral particles would magically disappear from circulation.
When the novel vaccines came along, the Modern Orthodox community again displayed its complete disinterest in independent research or verification. Yeshiva University, for example, was one of the first universities in New York to establish vaccine mandates, and continued enforcing boosters through the 2022 school year, despite the public and vocal resignation of the top approvers at the FDA.
All of this occurred while the University was making an international name for itself fighting in the name of religious freedom at the US Supreme Court. Ironically, while theoretically granting vaccine exemptions for religious freedoms, YU’s top rabbi proclaimed that it was a biblical obligation to obey the supposed majority of doctors and be vaccinated for covid-19, thoroughly undermining that potential exemption for most of YU’s Jewish students.
At the same time, many Modern Orthodox rabbis, in the US and Israel, virtuously banned the unvaccinated, and most children, from attending synagogue on Judaism’s high holy days in late 2021, well after the head of the CDC publicly acknowledged that the vaccine did not stop transmission. As the two fundamental pretexts for coercing vaccination, that the vaccines were 100 percent safe and that they protected others, have been universally accepted as misleading, there has still been no public retraction of hundreds of rabbinic decrees and pronouncements that one was religiously obligated to be vaccinated.
Integration into Judaism
Another way that Modern Orthodoxy has distinguished itself as a movement within Judaism, in contrast to the Ultra-Orthodox world, is in the religious value it associated with acquiring and appreciating secular knowledge and fully engaging in secular civic life. Becoming a medical doctor, or studying Greek philosophy and classical literature, became part of the religious experience, fulfilling the implied Biblical command to be involved in the world and know G-d’s ways. Accordingly, participation in civic life, both in Israel and the United States is considered the fulfillment of a mitzvah, with the simple acts of voting, volunteering, or public advocacy being fully integrated into the Jewish religious experience.
Patriotic flags were placed in synagogues prominently next to the Torah scrolls, and causes du jour were often integrated into weekly rabbinic sermons. Accordingly, during the declared pandemic, the narratives of “staying home,” wearing a mask, and being repeatedly vaccinated as part of one’s duty to society were also elevated to the level of religious obligation, on par with observing the Sabbath or keeping kosher.
Consequently, these narratives became a rallying cry for condescension, with Modern Orthodox Jews exhibiting disdain for the Ultra-Orthodox, viewing their attitude towards these civic rules as a religious neglect, indicative of a backwards and even anti-progressive stance. The Ultra Orthodox community, which had compartmentalized its legal compliance and daily activities from its religious practice, never felt the same religious drive to comply with such requirements.
Not only did the Modern Orthodox community try to invoke religiosity into everyday secular life, but it has also often tried to integrate its Talmudic approach to law with its secular studies. Here too, one of the defining features of this movement, rigid adherence to the minutiae of religious law, was exploited in such a way that led to a quasi-talmudic infatuation with zero-Covid rules.
A famous Jewish joke recounts the story of an Orthodox child who spends time at his Christian neighbors’ house during the holiday season. The child frustrates his hosts by asking endless questions concerning the minimum and maximum height of their Christmas tree, the order in which they light the Christmas lights, how far the tree must be from the door, and so on, as all of these specifications are required for the placement of one’s Hanukkah menorah.
It is easy to see how covid regulations would fit into this system: The arbitrary, though hyper-specific rules of covid are reminiscent of Talmudic topics around Jewish rituals. The precise six feet of social distancing required between synagogue seats or where one stands in a grocery line recalls Talmudic laws concerning spacing required for farming or property delineation.
Separated pod areas in schools or synagogues delineated by six-foot, six-inch Plexiglass barriers are akin to the rules of what constitutes a barrier for the sake of building one’s sukkah. “Stopping the chain of infection” by contact tracing is equivalent to the laws concerning the spread of ritual impurity. How to calculate the 14-day quarantine period following a supposed covid exposure is even reminiscent of a number of Jewish laws around family purity.
However familiar the application of these rules became to Modern Orthodox Jews though, the transference of Talmudic style back and forth to the application of covid regulations makes a mockery of the Jewish legal process. Whereas the idea of the spreading of covid bears similarities to Biblical and Talmudic laws of ritual purity, this was completely disconnected from the realistic nature of disease spread. As such, applying Talmudic-style discourse and concepts to these arbitrary rules and regulations simply devalued core Modern Orthodox ritual observance.
In a similar vein, for those who study Jewish Talmudic law on a regular basis, the idea that one’s status can be defined by adherence to certain specific rules came naturally. As such, the observance of these rules took on a highly ritualistic nature. For example, the wearing of a mask in synagogue became a categorical ceremonial practice, with the mask adorned as one entered the sanctuary along with one’s prayer shawl, and immediately removed as one exited the sanctuary into the synagogue social hall for banter and the consumption of whiskey and herring.
Failure to comply with this masking rite often led to immediate eviction from many Modern Orthodox synagogues. In my own synagogue, for example, the rabbi publicly berated me when I finally refused to wear a mask during Israel’s sixth wave in March of 2022, as he compared this failure to comply to not wearing a yarmulke. [The yarmulke is typically worn by Orthodox Jews as a reminder that G-d is above us watching at all times, and therefore we should act accordingly.]
In another surreal take, a lay leader of one of Israel’s synagogue movements posted an article explaining that the synagogues would continue to enforce mask-wearing in the time period between when mask mandates were announced to be ending and between their actual expiry three days later, completely oblivious of the scientific absurdity of such enforcement in the face of the need to follow ritual procedures. These rabbinic responses ironically demonstrated that the purpose of the mask was to implicitly remind us at all times to be obedient to the ritualistic rules of public health, regardless of the nonsensical manner of application.
Failure of Perspective
The lack of independent critical thought also led to a lack of perspective. Historically, pandemics were especially dangerous for Jews, as they were often blamed for the spread of disease and suffered consequences accordingly. As secular media sources, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, decided to label the entire Ultra-Orthodox community as disease spreaders, Modern Orthodox publications and leaders demonstrated little hesitation in joining the fray.
Even though such libelous allegations have historically proven to be baseless, the mere accusations triggered Jewish massacres numerous times throughout history. Unfortunately, while the Ultra-Orthodox seemed to be singled out much more than other groups who chose to act independently, like the Amish, Israeli Arabs, or other NYC minorities, their fellow Orthodox Jews not only didn’t come to defend against these anti-Semitic statements, but often joined wholeheartedly, demonstrating little knowledge of the history of nor acknowledging the potential effects of such accusations.
Most frustrating in witnessing these community-wide systemic failures is that there are thousands of pages of Talmudic legal discourse over the past 2,000 years related to the topics of how to act during a pandemic. As King Solomon stated, there is nothing new under the sun, and this supposedly “novel” pandemic is actually quite precedented. There exists extensive Talmudic discussion on whether one is permitted to kill, cause harm, or even steal from another in order to save oneself.
There is legal discourse on how to define a potential murderer or pursuer that may be coerced, as well as how to define what is considered “life-threatening danger” that releases one from other biblical obligations. There is legal dialogue around how much of one’s personal wealth they are permitted to put at risk in order to save the lives of others. There is extensive legal discussion around when a doctor can be relied upon for all manner of topics, including classifying the cause of death, or if they can declare something safe without any long-term data on which to rely.
There is a historically prescribed mathematical calculation of how one would declare an official pandemic that would require extra prayer and fasting (rather than the cancellation of prayers), a number to which the 2020 covid pandemic never came close. There is even legal precedent on how to treat worn apparel which some people consider protective from disease, though has never demonstrated to be successful at doing so scientifically. All of these legal discussions were summarily ignored by Modern Orthodox rabbis in the face of covid-19 and the wild speculations that the world was facing a cataclysmic disaster.
The lack of intellectual integrity involved in researching both the scientific basis and Jewish legal precedent for pandemic rules is indicative of a much greater failure in the Modern Orthodox community. Rabbis who were previously known to study complicated matters in depth for weeks on end before developing solutions to modern problems relative to modern day practice demonstrated no interest in researching primary sources on covid, relying solely on media and highly biased “expert” sources when faced with panic and uncertainty.
A movement built on the concept of excelling in both the secular and religious realms of thought has shown that it has achieved neither, instead degenerating into simply another community trying to coerce its own form of morality. As part of a greater global trend, a growing matter in Modern Orthodox circles was the increasing need to accept all natures of Jews and other faiths as they are, in many ways the antithesis of the communal coercion of morals normally associated with the Ultra-Orthodox ghetto mentality, yet in the end they proved no different, except in which virtue-signaling morality they chose to coerce.
Unlike other religions, Judaism’s holiest of days are focused on the idea of repentance, on both the personal and communal levels. Jewish repentance generally requires three things: acknowledgement of fault, an attempt to make amends, and a commitment not to err in the same manner again. We are nearing our fourth Yom Kippur since Modern Orthodox rabbis began their campaign to integrate Covidism with Judaism, and we have only been met with silence.
I have not heard any public acknowledgement of fault or error, despite the fact that every single empirical dataset has shown that the lockdowns and imposed coercions achieved minimal, largely immeasurable benefits, while incurring significant measurable harm. I have not heard or read anyone admit that the Ultra-Orthodox/Swedish approach was based on actual scientific precedent, rather than their own. I am not aware of any attempt to make amends for the horrors committed on a generation of Jewish children, now suffering from increased suicides, mental health crises, rampant addiction, and significantly lower educational achievement.
Nor has there been any attempt to make amends to those who were forced to lose their businesses and livelihoods, the elderly who were forced to deteriorate and perish without the accompaniment of family and friends, the young adults doomed to years of loneliness and despair, or those who incurred injury commonly associated with taking the barely-tested novel vaccines, all supposedly in the name of following Orthodox Jewish practice as decreed by these rabbis.
In order to regain trust in this model of Judaism, there must be a commitment by Modern Orthodox leadership to never go down this path again. This leadership must reclaim public influence and pastoral direction to rabbis who model its original ideals, who consider the effects of uncertainty and the ramifications of their decisions, and who do not relinquish control to doomsaying “experts” at the expense of rational thought and well-intentioned discourse.
The covid crisis in 2020 was not a scientific one, if there is such a thing, to be considered only by narrow-minded subject-matter experts. Questions we were confronted with included: How do we act in the face of adversity? How do we treat outsiders or those within our own community, when struck with fear and panic? Can and should the physical, financial, psychological and developmental well-being of the young and vulnerable be sacrificed for the uncertain benefit of a select older few? Who do we turn to when faced with the uncertainties of an oncoming possible natural disaster?
These challenges we faced as a society were theological and ethical in nature, the wheelhouse of religious and community leaders, as they had been for thousands of years prior. Answering these questions required humility, patience, perspective, and proactive rather than reactive decision making.
Modern Orthodoxy, with its history of trying to integrate modern science with allegiance to Torah values and G-d, was uniquely primed to evaluate balancing scientific uncertainty with faith-based morality. Instead, though, its leaders abdicated their responsibilities, outsourcing the academic analysis to supposed “experts” without any critical analysis, and failing to view this new challenge in the context of Jewish history, case law. or the general ethical guidelines outlined in the Torah. Hopefully, Modern Orthodox Judaism will soon begin the introspection required before facing our next challenge together in the coming future.