Discover more from Rationalist Judaism
"If They Only Knew How Much Torah Protects From Coronavirus..."
The big news in the charedi community today is a statement from Rav Chaim Kanievsky, printed in the Yated Neeman:
"The Torah commanded us to look after ourselves long before they (the Zionist government) came up with their rules. But if they were to know how much Torah protects and saves, they would find a solution for us to successfully (reopen the yeshivos) without entering into danger."
(He also reiterated his position that anyone disregarding the laws about restrictions should be reported to the police, describing them as rodfim. I'm not sure how to square this with the fact that there has been a regular minyan taking place in his apartment.)
Now, first of all, it's rather ironic that he puts down the rules of the government and claims that "Torah was there first." Because, as is well known, it is precisely the Torah leadership of Rav Chaim Kanievsky that was late to the game and which closed the yeshivos and schools several crucial days after everything else in the country was already closed.
Regarding finding a solution, it is true that there is a lot to be said regarding the inconsistency of how it is legal in Israel to gather for a protest, but not for prayer. And indeed, this was an argument submitted in a government discussion yesterday, with the result that prayer in open spaces with distancing will probably be soon permitted.
(I should add at this point that some of the non-charedi leadership has also been severely disappointing. In particular, President Rivlin's spending the first day of his chag with his children, at a time when many elderly people were told to be alone, was utterly disgraceful. However, he did apologize and express deep regret for his mistake, which virtually never happens with a charedi Gadol.)
Still, while one can certainly marshal a powerful argument for opening schools, shuls and yeshivos based on the primacy of Torah study in Judaism, that is not the argument that Rav Chaim presents. Instead, he uses the argument that Torah will protect against coronavirus.
Needless to say, this is the exact same argument that he used to stop the closure of the yeshivos and shuls to begin with. Which is in part the reason why Bnei Brak has by far the highest rate of infection in Israel. And the alleged "protective value" of Torah has not exactly been impressive in the US or UK, where countless Torah scholars have tragically died.
I'm even more bothered by the phraseology of Rav Chaim's statement. "If they were to know how much Torah protects and saves..." Well, how much does Torah protect and save? I don't even need an exact answer - just something approximate will suffice, as long as it has actual practical significance. Doctors can give statistics as to the efficacy of various remedies, the army can describe the efficacy of various forms of defense, so why can't anyone describe the efficacy of the protective power of Torah? Of course, no charedi rabbi will ever, ever try to give an actual meaningful answer to that question.
The idea of "Torah protecting" has absolutely zero significance in a practical sense. (As for how to understand classical sources on this topic, see my posts "Torah Against Terror?" and "Practically Speaking, Torah Does Not Protect.") When charedi apologists try to defend this concept, they end up twisting themselves into pretzels.
In a previous post, I mentioned a rabbi with whom I had an argument about Torah supposedly protecting from coronavirus. The argument has been steadily ongoing, as I try to show him the inconsistency of his position. This rabbi insists that Torah does indeed protect, but also maintains that one is halachically required to listen to doctors, and that if the doctors say that it is dangerous to continue shuls and yeshivos, ignoring them would be a prohibition of ain somchin al ha-nes, one may not rely on miracles. Accordingly, he said that it was indeed correct to listen to the doctors to close the shuls and yeshivos - but up until that point Torah was indeed protecting, and it was therefore a pity that we had to lose that protective power.
I pointed out that according to his logic, why on earth should one listen to doctors? After all, they are basing their guidance on the situation in the general population, and are not taking into account the supposed protective powers of Torah! Or to put it another way - the doctors don't only say that's bad for people to get together now - they say that it was retroactively always bad, and that what was done in the past led to the present situation. If he believes that they are right about what we should do now, then why are they wrong in what they believe about the cause? And there are all kinds of other questions to ask, which is that since every pandemic starts off as a regular contagious disease like the annual flu, at which point does gathering to study Torah suddenly stop protecting significantly and become harmful?
A more rationalist explanation of the concept of the Torah's protection can be found in the commentary of Meiri (to Sotah 21a). He explains: “Torah protects the world – i.e., that the Torah scholar influences others, and his wisdom enables society to endure.” In his view, the meaning of the statement that "Torah protects" is simply that Torah scholars, with their wisdom, influence society for the better, thereby enabling it to thrive.
Alas, it would seem that not every person known as a Torah scholar influences society in this way. But that leads in turn to the question of "Who Is A Gadol?", which has been forcefully answered by Rav Eliezer Melamed:
"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."
It's sometimes pretty clear where such gadlut can, and cannot, be found.
* * * * *
The yeshivos might be closed, but we are still teaching Torah live online from the Biblical Museum of Natural History! See our schedule at www.BiblicalNaturalHistory.org/live