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Who Caused the Death by Daas Torah?
It's horrific. A top health official estimated that nearly 40 percent of the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak - around seventy-five thousand people - have contracted coronavirus. Per capita, its infection numbers are four times higher than the next most infected city, Jerusalem. The government met last night to approve a full, military-enforced closure on Bnei Brak.
As I wrote in my post Understanding the Charedi Response to Coronavirus, there are several factors responsible for this, to which one can add the overcrowding of the city. But one significant factor is that Rav Chaim Kanievsky, Rav Gershon Edelstein and other sources of "Daas Torah" told the yeshivos to stay open until just a few days ago, when they did an abrupt about-turn. Rav Chaim Kanievsky had infamously stated on March 12th that closing the yeshivos is more dangerous than coronavirus, since yeshivos actually protect against it.
It's a shocking thing for believers in Daas Torah to accept. It's not just that Torah turns out not to protect against coronavirus. It's that the mouthpieces of Torah, the living embodiments of Torah, the guiding lights of the community, gave utterly disastrous guidance, with fatal consequences. As I pointed out in my post "The Death Of Daas Torah," 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?!
Unsurprisingly, my post made a number of people deeply uncomfortable. After all, it undermined their entire worldview. They attempted various counterarguments, which I would like to address here.
The first counterargument given is that it wasn't known to anyone at that stage that coronavirus was so dangerous. Yet this is simply false. True, it wasn't as scary as it later became, but at that point there were already countless cancelled events and municipalities petitioning for a national unity government in the face of a national emergency. And it's not as though he retracted it a few days later - when the entire national school system shut down, he still did not retract.
The second counterargument is that although others knew at that stage, Rav Chaim didn't, since he leads such a sheltered life, and so his response was understandable and legitimate. There are a number of responses to be made to this.
First is that he certainly knew it wasn't something utterly insignificant. He was being besieged by questions from important figures in the charedi world. And he didn't rescind it until long after the American Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah had already said that yeshivos should close.
Second is that not only did he know that it was a serious issue, he also knew (or certainly should have known) that it could potentially become even more serious. It is therefore grossly irresponsible to release a blanket statement, that it would be more dangerous to close the yeshivos, with no conditions in the statement, and no monitoring of the situation.
Third is that even if the extent of the danger of coronavirus was thought to be much less, his response was still wrong. No, yeshivah studies do not protect from any level of contagion. The nature of contagious diseases is that they are spread by crowded situations. Yeshivah studies do not - and did not - prevent the initial coronavirus scenario from developing into the much more serious situation that we have today; instead, they helped that to happen.
Finally, there are those people who, instead of commenting on whether this is true or not, say that it is Lashon Hara, that it is Wrong to talk about such things right now. To which I say, it is exactly at this time that there is an opportunity to get people to realize that they should be making sensible decisions with their lives in all areas and not abdicating responsibility to an utterly broken and lethal system of leadership.
It's important to keep in mind that all this is not necessarily Rav Chaim's personal responsibility. After all, he is very isolated, very old, and probably no longer entirely sound of mind. And he is certainly manipulated by his handlers, including his notorious grandson. But it's even more damning that the words of such an isolated and elderly figure, who is obviously constantly manipulated, could be taken so seriously! The fact is that his words had tremendous and terrible influence. It's an appalling demonstration of the utterly broken notion of authority that exists in the charedi world.
Who is responsible for the fact that the guidance of someone who was not fit to give guidance was taken so seriously? That's not Rav Chaim's fault. That's the fault of everyone who has promoted the status of Rav Chaim Kanievsky as being the "Sar HaTorah" and the "Gadol HaDor" whose guidance must be treated with great reverence.
Over a year ago, I wrote a post entitled "Mishpachah, Gedolim and Decisions." It's shocking to see how prescient were my concluding words: "There are countless people who make decisions that are, at best, ill-informed, and at worst, life-threatening, because they have been led to believe that Rav Chaim Kanievsky and others like him should be making the decisions for them. Anyone who contributes to the myth of his Daas Torah shares responsibility for that."
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On a more positive note, this Chol HaMoed you can safely still have the traditional Chol HaMoed zoo experience - with Torah insights! Join the live online tours of the Biblical Museum of Natural History - see details at www.BiblicalNaturalHistory.org/live