Discover more from Rationalist Judaism
Learning Torah vs. Living Torah
In this forum I've discussed a few explanations for why there is a disturbingly high proportion of people in the charedi community, including rabbinic leaders, who disregard Covid precautions. One is that there is a non-scientific mindset which genuinely does not grasp the connection between ignoring precautions and contracting Covid. Another is that there is a feeling that the precautions are an anti-charedi decree being imposed by outsiders, which must therefore be resisted. But Rav Hershel Schachter, shlita, has suggested a third explanation. (The article, originally posted at TorahWeb, appears to have been taken down, perhaps because of some unfortunate comments made about the roles of Jews and non-Jews.)
Rav Schachter begins by expressing how disturbed he is about the high rate of infection in the charedi community, caused in part by the relative disregard for precautions. He notes that in classical halachic literature, pikuach nefesh is regarded as being of tremendous importance. "Halacha tells us that even if there is a sfeik sfeika, a very slight risk, of sakonah, still that slight safeik is sufficient to be docheh Shabbos and Yom Kippur and most of the mitzvosof the Torah. So the question begs itself, how could it possibly be that the number of infections in the Chareidi community due to COVID is twice as high as what it should have been, proportionally? ...This entire attitude that many otherwise very observant Jews have to totally ignore the recommendations of the medical community regarding the risks of COVID is in total contradiction to the Jewish tradition of psak halacha. The religious Jews always placed more value on human life than doctors did."
A powerful question indeed. Rav Schachter boldly suggests the following partial answer:
My impression is that part of the explanation is a result of the derech ha'limud adopted in many of the yeshivas. There is a big emphasis on pilpul, sevoros, chakiros, and ha'veh a'minas in the Gemarah. The Gemarah considers the highest level of learning to be one who learns l'asukei sh'meitza aliba d'hilchosa- to reach a final conclusion as to what the halacha is. When I was a student in the Yeshiva, one of the talmidim asked a rebbe after we learned a whole piece of Gemarah that was relevant to halacha l'meisa - halachic practice, "so how do we pasken?" The rebbe, who was a European, responded in Yiddish, "call up the Agudas Harabonim and ask them". In the Lithuanian yeshivas in Europe learning halacha l'meisa was frowned upon. They misinterpreted the idea of learning Torah l'shmo to mean that one should not focus his learning arriving at a conclusion as to what the halacha is. It is well known that the Chazon Ish worked hard to correct this misunderstanding and influence the yeshivas to concentrate more on halacha l'maaseh.
Many students in the yeshivas today are trained to raise all logical possibilities about the halacha - maybe it's like this and maybe it's like that; on the one hand and on the other hand, etc. Rav Avigdor Nevenzal pointed out that the Malbim (in his commentary onMishlei 1:7) understands that "אויל" is a specific type of a fool who is always raising questions and doubts, that maybe it's like this and maybe it's like that. The basic mitzvah of talmud Torah is to be familiar with all of the 613 mitzvos and all of their details. Answering a question Rav Akiva Eiger has on a Tosofos is comparable to eating the icing on a second piece of cake as part of dessert. The primary goal and focus of limud ha'Torah is to know halacha l'maaseh how to keep all the mitzvos ha'Torah. In my opinion much of the tragedy of the high infection rate among the Chareidi population is due to the faulty derech ha'limud which eschews focusing on the correct thing to do halacha l'maaseh, and instead focuses on pilpul and ha'veh a'minas. Just as in learning Torah they are preoccupied with sevaras that do not correspond to halacha l'ma'aseh, similarly in dealing with COVID they come up with, and act based on, ideas that simply don't correspond to reality.
Let us all return to the traditional style of learning that was practiced for so many centuries and merit the promise of the Torah, "וחי בהם" ולא שימות בהם.
Now, for those who are critical of the charedi response to Covid (or of charedi society in general), having someone like Rav Hershel Schachter issue a critique is welcomed, and there is an immediate desire to agree with what he says. But, in all honesty, I must say that I do not see how the high rate of Covid infections in the charedi community is due to acting on ideas not corresponding to reality which in turn can be traced to a derech limmud. To my mind, if there is a connection between the derech halimmud and the Covid response, then it is slightly different; that there is no attempt to match up their general societal actions with the laws and values of the Torah.
That's how a charedi rally against conscription in the IDF sought to summon attendants from yeshivos with the rallying cry of "Shall your brothers go out to fight, and you remain here?" - without any self-awareness that this verse is actually about everyone joining the army! All the Torah discussion about fighting in wars, working for a living, even kindness to animals is only ever done in an abstract way, with no thought of translating this into how society should function today. The same is true with how pikuach nefesh, a principle of great importance in halachic literature, is not implemented in practice (along with other principles such as concern for chillul Hashem and eivah).
The basic problem of learning in an abstract way rather than in a way that corresponds to reality, was forcefully made several years ago in a tremendous essay by Rabbi Dr. Aaron Hirsch Fried in Hakirah, titled "Is there a Disconnect between Torah Learning and Torah Living?" The answer that he gave was, of course, that yes, there is tragically a great disconnect between the two. People can intricately learn topics in the Gemara about paying for damages and yet not make any connection to themselves damaging other people's property. There is often little attempt to translate the laws and values of the Torah into our daily lives.
I think that this relates to a much broader point about charedi vs. non-charedi conceptions of Torah. The charedi mindset is that Torah is primarily something to be studied in depth, as an end unto itself. The non-charedi (especially dati-leumi) mindset is that Torah is primarily a guide to how to improve society.
This difference is perfectly expressed in the contrast between the charedi and non-charedi perceptions of who is a Gadol. The charedi perception is that the Gadol is the one who is secluded and totally immersed in Talmud study. His environment is completely removed from the world, and even his study focus and teachings are primarily focused on abstract Talmudic issues. Thus, Rav Chaim Kanievsky is the ultimate Gadol B'Torah. The dati-leumi perspective, on the other hand, could not be more different, and is expressed by Rav Eliezer Melamed as follows:
"Gadlut beTorah (Torah greatness, eminence) 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 ongoing war which has surrounded it for over a century; the attitude towards science and work, and the contemporary social and economic questions."
Charedi Gedolim don't even think in such terms, let alone formulate a serious approach to such issues.
Or, to give another potent example: Fulfilling Bein Adam L'Chavero is conceived in charedi society as relating to such things as learning (and hopefully following) the "halachos" of shmiras halashon. Even a broader perspective, such as that expressed in a recent Tzarich Iyun article about the nature of charedi society, only speaks about charity and giving in terms of neighborhood assistance. But in dati-leumi society, this is omitting an enormous aspect of Bein Adam L'Chavero - the broad picture of helping the nation as a whole to function in the best way, including serving in the armed forces and creating a high-functioning economy and society.
Is the focus on learning Torah, or on living Torah? That, to my mind, is the crucial difference between charedi and non-charedi society. And this in turn also relates to the difference between the rationalist and non-rationalist views of what Torah actually is - whether a practical guidebook for life, or a mystical source of energy merely clothed as a book of law and teachings (as per Nefesh HaChaim). I discuss all this in my new book Rationalism vs. Mysticism, and the ramifications are vast - as we have seen, it can be a matter of life and death.
If you'd like to subscribe to this blog via email, use the form on the right of the page, or send me an email and I will add you. Please note that with the publication of this book, I have recently been even more swamped by email than usual, and so if you are writing to me about something, it will take me a while to respond.