Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Some Reassuring News About Coronavirus

There are a number of reassuring items in the news that I would like to share. But first, some sad news; I was extremely upset to learn that my friend R. Tzvika Ryzman of Los Angeles has been hospitalized with severe coronavirus. Probably some of you have seen his fascinating emails/sefer "Ratz KaTzvi," and he also (naturally) dedicated the tzvi exhibit at the new Biblical Museum of Natural History. Wishing him, and all the other sick, a refuah shelemah.

I should also mention that sharing any good news about coronavirus does not mean that one should relax the restrictions. On the contrary; it's largely thanks to the restrictions that there is any good news to report. (And I wish to again clarify; in my first, very naive post on this topic, I predicted that the restrictions wouldn't last long. But I never said or meant that one should not observe them!)

So onto the reassuring news. First of all, all of us were horrified to learn that over ten thousand people have died from coronavirus in Italy. Well, it turns out that this is not true. Yes, over ten thousand people have died in Italy over the last few months, and they had coronavirus. But Italy has a population of over 60 million people, some of whom naturally suffer from various medical conditions, and many of whom are elderly. Due to the peculiarities of how Italy reports things, it was reported that they died of coronavirus even if there was a combination of factors involved, and even if just happens to be that they had coronavirus when they died of other causes.

Second: Israel is doing really, really well, from a health perspective. The mortality rate has been extremely low. The rate of new cases, rather than rising exponentially, is not rising at all! In fact, if you deduct the charedi population from the test results, the rate of new cases has actually been steadily dropping (I am mystified as to why this fact has not received more publicity). While the government is ramping up the restrictions on a regular basis, many of us are hoping that Bibi will recognize that it is time to differentiate between different sectors of the population. The government will hopefully place more effort in enforcing the restrictions on those sectors which disregard them (Litzman himself suggested quarantining the entire city of Bnei Brak), and it can soon start to relax them on other sectors of the population.

Third: There's lots of reassuring news about amazing technological innovations and logistical developments for fighting coronavirus. For those of you on Facebook, I have created a group called "Comforting News About Coronavirus." Join it at this link.

Fourth: Many people are wondering what they will do on Chol HaMoed Pesach if they are stuck at home. Don't worry, the Biblical Museum of Natural History has you covered! We are offering a number of live online tours over Chol HaMoed, including a six-part series that covers almost the entire museum in detail! You can learn more at www.BiblicalNaturalHistory.org/live. Please, please, spread the word, by sending this link to your community and friends!

Sunday, March 29, 2020

The Death of Daas Torah

"If one merits it, the Torah is an elixir of life; if one does not merit it, the Torah becomes a potion of death" - Talmud, Yoma 72b

It was only 24 hours ago that I wrote about the problem of street minyanim. And now, in a stunning turn of events, Rav Chaim Kanievsky and Rav Gershon Edelstein ruled that it is forbidden to davven in a street minyan or to hold yeshivah studies), and moreover that anyone who states that they have bitachon and makes light of medical directives is a rodef and one must report them to the authorities.

The reversal was inevitable. Coronavirus is sweeping through charedi communities like - well, like the plague. Although charedim form only 10% of the population in Israel, they are fully 50% of coronavirus cases. Bnei Brak has the highest per capita rate of infection in all Israel.

In part, this is not their fault - it's a result of their living in more crowded communities. But it's also because of the so-called rabbinic leadership in the chareidi world by Rav Chaim Kanievksy, Rav Gershon Edelstein and others. When everyone was shouting at charedim to close the shuls and yeshivos, Rav Chaim Kanievsky was enthusiastically quoted by Roshei Yeshivah as saying that closing the yeshivos is more dangerous than coronavirus, since yeshivos actually protect against it.

This may be the first time in history that someone widely seen as a Gadol B'Torah has effectively described himself as a rodef.

Now there will immediately be people protesting that one cannot blame Rav Chaim - he simply wasn't aware of the recent gravity of the situation. But everyone else was! Frankly, I couldn't care less whether Rav Chaim is personally responsible or not. The problem is not Rav Chaim, per se; it's with an entire society that considers him to be a "leader," and promotes him as such.

We all know about how, prior to the Holocaust, various rabbinic leaders urged their followers to stay in Europe. But this is something happening right now, for all to see. Everyone else was warning that the charedi approach would lead to death, but they didn't have "Daas Torah," so their opinion didn't count. Until Daas Torah suddenly came to the shocking realization that they were actually correct.

As Rav Aharon Lichtenstein ztz"l said - if there is no Daas, then there is no Daas Torah. And as Rav Eliezer Melamed, shlita, said - "I don't consider (charedi Gedolim) to be Gedolei Torah... Gadlut beTorah necessitates an all-embracing, fully accountable handling of serious issues facing the generation, including: the attitude towards Am Yisrael in all its diversity and various levels – both religious, and non-religious; the attitude towards mitzvoth of yishuv haaretz (settling the Land) and the on-going war which has surrounded it for over a century; the attitude towards science and work, and the contemporary social and economic questions."

What is "Daas Torah" worth, when the average non-charedi, non ben-Torah, was correct, and Daas Torah was wrong, in a life-and-death matter?!

(Take a live online tour of the Biblical Museum of Natural History this Pesach! See www.BiblicalNaturalHistory.org/live for details.)

Saturday, March 28, 2020

The CoronaMinyan Problem.

This is not a post about why it is wrong to have illegal minyanim in basements.

Other people have already written about that with great vehemence. Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz has minced no words, and has quoted Hatzola medics referring to people in such minyanim as murderers. I am pretty sure that nobody reading this blog participates in such illegal minyanim.

This is instead a post about why it wrong to have perfectly legal minyanim (in Israel), outdoors, with a two-meter separation between each person. Several of which I could see today from my home.

My esteemed friends Rabbi Scott Kahn and Rabbi Pesach Wolicki put it best, and I will paraphrase their explanation. When Rosh HaShanah falls on Shabbos, Chazal prohibited blowing the shofar. When Sukkos falls on Shabbos, Chazal prohibited taking Arba Minim. The reason is that someone may come to carry these in an area without an eruv. But what about someone who won't do that? In fact, the vast majority of people won't do that!

The answer is that it doesn't make a difference. Chazal weren't worried that YOU will carry a shofar on Shabbos. They were worried that SOMEONE ELSE will.

Yes, you might be attending a minyan in which people are told to keep a two-meter separation. But you see how these things go. Inevitably, several people get closer, especially during kriyas haTorah (as I personally witnessed from my window). And it also gives endorsement to other street minyanim, which are even less careful. My mother was watching a street minyan from her window when rain suddenly started to fall, and they all ran inside the shul together!

Street minyanim, even safe ones, encourage unsafe ones. And for a community which is particularly suffering from a general lack of seriousness in social distancing - including various rabbis who have openly flouted the notion as being "foreign decrees" - it is particularly important to attest to the importance of public health. (Jerusalem and Bnei Brak have the highest infection rates in Israel.)

Not to mention that it also causes Chillul Shabbos. I was looking out from my balcony today and saw a police car drive to a street minyan. The officer was making his rounds of the minyanim, urging everyone to keep their distance (he could not legally instruct them to disband). This is what the street minyanim are forcing the police to do on Shabbos.

I would like to quote the Rav of my shul, Rav Menachem Copperman, from an email that he sent out twelve days ago (which seems like a year in CoronaTime), before the more recent restrictions:
With a broken heart and tears in my eyes, I would like to share with you one of the most difficult decisions, if not the most difficult, I have had to make in my time as Rav of the community, namely temporarily suspending all the regular minyanim in shul until Hashem has mercy on us and removes all sickness and evil decrees.

Over the last 24 hours, our rational and emotional thoughts have been in conflict with each other.

On the one hand, more and more people are contracting the Coronavirus and the dangers are growing; on the other hand, the Health Ministry has permitted gatherings of 10 people (even 20 in large rooms with enough space). Furthermore, as we know, tefilla betzibur never goes unanswered: 
"ומי כה' אלוקינו בכל קראנו אליו" (Devarim 4,7)
"אין הקב"ה מואס בתפילתם של רבים" (Berachot 8.)

And yet, I ask myself: how is it - especially in a time when we our tefillot are so vital and we need the gates of Heaven to be opened - that right now we could break our direct connection with Hashem, disperse the community and suspend the minyanim? How is that possible?

And then I was reminded of my uncle, a senior doctor and mohel, who was always very careful to wait a full week after the baby had recovered from sickness before performing the brit mila (following the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch), even in cases when the doctors said that there was no medical reason to delay the brit so long.

When people said to him that he was delaying and giving up too easily on the requirement to have a brit on the eighth day, and thus missing out on the mitzvah of “on the eighth day”, he would reply to them by quoting  what Rav Shmuel Halevi Wosner (author of the Shevet Halevi) had said to him: “I am not being lenient in the mitzva of brit mila, I am being stringent in pikuach nefesh.”

In my humble opinion, this is exactly the situation in which we find ourselves today: anyone who reads between the lines of the directives from the Ministry of Health and understands a bit about the situation can understand that from a health standpoint there is a danger even in gatherings of less than 10 people and the correct way to halt the spread of the virus is to prevent gatherings of any size. The reason why the government is not doing this is probably out of wider considerations connected to concerns about causing panic among the general population and the serious damage to the economy that would result from a complete shutdown.

Therefore, taking into consideration the fact that there are likely to be many carriers of the virus who are asymptomatic and that tefilla betzibur is not an outright obligation from a halachic point of view, I have decided to suspend all minyanim in the shul and I ask every one of you not to endanger yourselves by attending minyanim which could chas veshalom put you in danger. This is not in any way about belittling the importance of tefilla betzibur, rather it is about being stringent about pikuach nefesh.

If in regard to desecrating Shabbat for a sick person Chazal said “Desecrate for him one Shabbat in order that he may keep many Shabbatot”, how much more so that we should suspend some minyanim so that we will be able to “daven in many minyanim” in the future.
It doesn't make a difference if you are personally practicing social distancing in the minyan. There should not be street minyanim during this period. Period.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Come Tour The New Museum - Online!

Our first live online tour for schools starts today! And if you'd like to join our first online tour for the general public, it is taking place on Thursday. Sign up now - write to office@BiblicalNaturalHistory.org! And even if you're not joining, please help spread the word - share this announcement with family, friends and community!


Thursday, March 19, 2020

Understanding the Charedi Response to Coronavirus

It's extraordinary. It was just a few weeks ago that Rav Aharon Feldman was being "mevatel his daas" to Rav Chaim Kanievsky regarding voting in the WZO elections. Now, we have the Moetzes Gedolei Torah of Agudas Yisrael of America saying that Rav Chaim Kanievsky makes serious mistakes in his communal guidance.

Of course, they don't say that explicitly. What they explicitly say is that everyone must listen to medical advice and close all the shuls and yeshivos. But Rav Chaim Kanievsky famously stated a few days ago that closing the yeshivos is more dangerous than coronavirus, since yeshivos actually protect against it. The Moetzes Gedolei Torah of America are now effectively saying that Rav Chaim Kanievsky was completely, dangerously wrong.

There's been a lot of talk in the last few days about the charedi response (or lack of response) to coronavirus. I saw plenty of crowds while driving through charedi neighborhoods in Ramat Beit Shemesh. There were large chassidishe weddings here in Beit Shemesh, in which the invitations urged people not to take photos which could lead to prosecution. The Litvishe Yeshivos in Israel carried on as normal (which is only just now beginning to change). Rav Sholom Ber Sorotzkin, rosh yeshivah of the massive Ateres Shlomo network of yeshivos, is on video leading his students to sing "We will not listen to their (the health department) regulations." And even the statement of the Moetzes Gedolei Torah of America, as welcome as it is, is coming several days late.

Many people have responded by referring to the Gedolim or the charedi community as "stupid," "evil" or even "murderous." This is a mistake. As I always make clear in my talks and writings about the notorious ban on my books, people are generally not either stupid or evil. You have to understand their worldview and how it causes them to develop their approach. The opposition to my books was completely understandable, even if its expression in terms of a ban on the books as being heretical was incorrect and mistaken. Likewise, the severely deficient charedi response to coronavirus is completely understandable, when you understand the charedi world.

As I wrote in my monographs on the Novelty of Orthodoxy and the Making of Haredim, the chareidi community developed in the twentieth century based on taking to an extreme the Orthodox concept of communal segregation. They developed a siege mentality; in fact, the first time I saw the phrase "siege mentality" used in reference to charedim was in an article by none other than Rav Aharon Feldman about the Israeli Yated Neeman. Wider society, and especially the government, is the "other." Charedim separate themselves from the "other," and are suspicious of it. Likewise, they are hostile to secular knowledge, science and rationalism.

Coronavirus has challenged us with changes to our lifestyle that are unprecedented and which initially seem crazy and unthinkable. Most of us have made this rapid change because we have been strongly motivated to do so, by a combination of three things. First is the terrifying reports that we read online from Italy and elsewhere. Second is our trust in government authorities with regard to their guidance and regulations. Third is our acceptance of the basic underlying worldview of the scientific community.

Chareidi communities are lacking in all three of those. As a relatively isolated community, they are less in tune with the news and mood of the wider world, and their reactions to events lag behind the rest of us (and in Corona Time, a lag of even a few days is a lifetime). As a community based around a siege mentality, they are unreceptive and suspicious of guidance and regulations coming from the government. And as an anti-rationalist community, they are suspicious of scientific authority. It's only to be expected that the response to coronavirus would be deficient - and that the American Gedolim, less insular than the Israeli Gedolim, would lag less far behind.

Meanwhile, the charedi community is facing complete and utter collapse. The global economic costs of coronavirus are going to be serious; for the charedi community, they will be catastrophic. Already, there is a video of someone asking Rav Chaim Kanievsky what to tell donors to kollelim who are nervous about parting with funds during these uncertain times. Rav Chaim responds with the assurance that the donors will make double of the amount that they donate, but this is unlikely to resonate with people who are also aware of Rav Chaim's previous assurance that yeshivos should stay open to protect from coronavirus.

Many charedim do not have meaningful employment, nor job skills, nor even see work as desirable. They live off government support and private donations, and these are going to be rapidly drying up. They need to make an immediate and drastic transformation to their lifestyle, and start training themselves and their children with the skills and desire for meaningful employment. This in turn will require their rejection of the insistence of the Gedolim that there is no correlation between secular education and parnasah.

The charedi community is going to need bailing out, big time. But right now, before the situation becomes any more dire, donations to charedi institutions should be made with a message to the recipient that just as hishtadlus (closing yeshivos, social distancing, etc.) has been necessary to protect from the virus, so too will hishtadlus be necessary going forward in terms of preparing our children and communities to survive in a world which now lacks the financial resources to support a kollel lifestyle. Which means difficult changes. It means teaching all our children the desire to work and the skills and education to get a job. It means the recipients acknowledging that the Gedolim were wrong about coronavirus, about Rav Chaim's leadership and about other things.

It will be very hard for many donors to insist on this, and even harder for many charedim to acknowledge it. But it's a matter of life and death - from coronavirus, and from poverty.

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Monday, March 16, 2020

Who Really Believes That "Torah Protects"?

Does learning Torah protect against coronavirus?

According to the Gedolim last week, absolutely! Rav Sholom Ber Sorotzkin, rosh yeshivah of Ateres Shlomo, went to discuss the coronavirus situation with Rav Chaim Kanievksy and Rav Gershon Edelstein. He was told that although coronavirus is dangerous, cancelling yeshivah studies is much more dangerous, since Torah study, as done in the yeshivah framework, is the greatest protection against sickness.

Since then, things have changed a bit. True, charedim are still congregating in larger numbers than anyone else, but they don't have Facebook or the internet, so it's understandable that they are less panicked. Meanwhile, Rav Chaim kept on being besieged by concerned rabbanim, politicians, and community leaders. And now, charedi yeshivos are dramatically changing their policies, changing from having hundreds of yeshivah students in a Beis Medrash to groups of no more than ten. And meanwhile, in the US, Agudas Yisrael (after some initial equivocating) is very open to canceling yeshivah studies. So much for "cancelling yeshivah studies being more dangerous than being exposed to coronavirus."

Of course, this is all too reminiscent of the fraudulent claim, frequently made, that Torah protects from terrorism and military threats. It's fraudulent not just because it doesn't protect, but because the people making this claim don't even really believe it anyway.

This was particularly well illustrated recently in a video of Rav Asher Weiss. As a rare person who is widely respected in both charedi and dati-leumi circles, he recently went to speak at the Hesder yeshivah in Sderot. During his talk, a siren suddenly went off, warning of an incoming rocket. Rav Weiss stopped and asked if the room was protected. After apparently being reassured that it was, he said, "We are studying Torah, and this is the best protection possible." It might have been convincing had that been the first thing that he said, but, tellingly, it wasn't.

When it gets real, most people, even charedim, even Gedolim, do not believe that Torah protects against military threats; that's why during the Gaza wars, the charedi yeshivos in the South fled. The same goes for coronavirus; as long as it's just a mild concern, they say that Torah protects, but as things get more serious, the yeshivos will empty. Nobody really thinks that Torah protects against sickness; that's why charedim make just as much hishtadlus as anyone else (if not more so) to get the best doctors when they are sick.

Rav Chaim Kanievsky might actually be different. He might be one of the few people who really does believe that Torah protects against both military threats and coronavirus. But then, he also believes that a dried pig's testicle, pulverized and ground up, will help a woman conceive (and you can eat the right testicle to get a son, and the left testicle to get a daughter). I record this not to denigrate him (and in any case, repeating someone's beliefs is not a denigration). Rather, it is to point out that he has a completely different worldview than most people.

Torah preserves us as the Jewish nation. But it doesn't protect against terrorists or disease. For corona, you need things like prevention, vaccines and doctors. For military threats, you need an army. Pretty much everyone thinks that way, even if they profess to believe otherwise.

See too this post: Practically Speaking, Torah Does NOT Protect.   

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Friday, March 13, 2020

Good News

Can't visit Israel? School cancelled? We've got you covered! 
 
At the Biblical Museum of Natural History, we will be starting tours in the NEW museum building next week exclusively for a very special type of person - those who can't come! We will be offering live online tours for schools and other groups who are unable to physically visit. More details will be posted soon; meanwhile, for details, write to office@BiblicalNaturalHistory.org

Shabbat shalom!



Some Reassuring News About Coronavirus

There are a number of reassuring items in the news that I would like to share. But first, some sad news; I was extremely upset to learn that...