Does Judaism Mandate Magical Thinking?
A number of people asked me to respond to Shaul Magid's article in Tablet, "COVID-19, Haredi Jewry, and ‘Magical’ Thinking." In a nutshell, the article argued that charedi claims about yeshivos protecting from coronavirus were actually more consistent with traditional Judaism than non-charedi skepticism of such claims:
...It is certainly true that Haredi leaders misjudged this pandemic and their constituents have paid a high price. However, the Haredim were “negligent” in part because they actually took seriously religious beliefs that many traditional Jews claim to hold. In other words: They really believe it!
The notion of covenantal reciprocity, that our actions are an answer to a divine command that will evoke divine mercy, runs down the spine of the entire tradition. It does not suggest mitzvot will always protect us as if they are some magical formula; we know this is not the case, as the sages somewhat cynically teach, “there are no rewards for mitzvot in this world.” But this equation is arguably the very operating system of Judaism....
Is this true? Does Judaism necessarily require one to believe that doing mitzvos will result, in some way, in concrete protection from harm in this world?
According to Rambam's rationalist approach to Judaism, the answer is no. Observing the mitzvot is obligatory and beneficial for a number of reasons, but supernatural assistance in this world is not one of them. For a lengthy discussion of Rambam's approach, and how to reconcile it with some seemingly contradictory statements elsewhere in his writings, see the appendix to Menachem Kellner's Maimonides' Confrontation With Mysticism, which you can download here.
But what about traditional, non-rationalist approaches to Judaism? Isn't the approach that "Yeshivos protect from coronavirus" consistent with traditional Judaism?
The answer is still no. Yes, traditional, non-rationalist approaches maintained that God dynamically provides supernatural assistance in this world to those who fulfill His will. But - and this is the crucial point - traditionally, this was rarely seen as a reason to avoid normal worldly endeavor.
When Yaakov went to meet Esav, he prepared with prayer - but also with presents and battle plans. When Moshe chastised the tribes who weren't going to enter the land and share the responsibility of combat - they didn't respond that they will learn Torah instead. When the Sages spoke about the importance of earning a living and teaching one's children a trade, they didn't say that one can learn and rely on God.
To be sure, you can find a number of aggadic statements about the supernatural benefits of studying Torah and performing mitzvos. But these were not taken to be operational practice for society. To say as an abstract religious notion that "Torah protects" was done; to translate this into saying that "we are going to go against medical advice and normal responses to pandemics" was not done.
(There are a number of other things to comment on about Magid's article; perhaps another time.)