Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Letter to Rabbis Worldwide

"Social-distancing" minyan in Williamsburg

Dear Rabbis of Jewish Communities worldwide:

The Torah studies of Jewish children, the congregating of Jews to pray and study, and the functioning of shuls and yeshivos, are essential to our faith and to the very existence of our people. See sources below [1].

Needless to say, Judaism does not take closing shuls and yeshivos lightly.

As such, we, the undersigned, demand an explanation.

For the past two months, rabbis imposed and enforced an extraordinary worldwide ban of yeshivos, schools, synagogues, houses of study, and even tefila b'tzibur on separate porches.

Such drastic rabbinic action is unprecedented in Jewish history and surely requires a written psak din that provides sources, rationale, and precedent in halacha. This psak needs to be able to stand up to peer review of other rabbanim of our generation. Moreover, it requires signatures from an authoritative posek or rav moreh hora'ah b'poel.

We understood the delay of such a psak in its first few days of the local outbreak, when such extraordinary measures were undoubtedly a knee-jerk reaction in response to horrific reports of a novel disease that was purported to be highly contagious and was anticipated to cause widespread cataclysmic mortality in our communities.

However, many weeks have elapsed since then and still not a single authoritative written psak din taking responsibility for these rabbinic bans.

Furthermore, this virus has not proven to be nearly as deadly as anticipated. Even in New York with the highest COVID-19 death toll in the world, it cannot be defined as a plague (dever) according to Jewish law. Even in the beginning, it was known to pose negligible risk to children and young adults. Even for adults in their thirties, forties, and fifties, the risk factor is not nearly numerically-significant enough to justify a total ban on tefila b'tzibur or limud haTorah with tinokos shel beis rabban.

Some rabbis pointed to statistical risk to an entire population, and argued that observing the social-distancing policy with stated objective of "flattening the curve" is a moral imperative. However, they made no effort to prove that statistical risk has any bearing in halacha.

Some cited the halacha that during an outbreak of a contagious disease, even if the mortality rate of a plague is not reached, parents still have an obligation to evacuate their young from the city to protect them from mortal risk [2]. That would certainly make the case for individuals who are at significant risk for dying from COVID-19 to isolate, but in no way does it justify removing children, young adults, or anyone else who isn't at serious risk, from the public.

To compound our astonishment, the rabbis who enacted these sweeping bans on public prayer and Torah study made no effort to exhort their adherents and community members from waiting in lines at liquor stores, candy stores, or any stores for that matter, nor did they call upon their local Jewish store owners to close their stores to the public. They failed to prohibit members of their kehila from taking walks in the park, jogging, or engaging in any other public activity.

The reason they didn't is rather obvious. These rabbinic actions were not about actual pikuach nefesh but about endorsing a preventative public health policy that has been adopted by the medical mainstream and the government.[3]

Halacha mandates that pikuach nefesh is docheh kol haTorah kula only when there is an actual sakana for the person himself or for his fellow [4]. This is not only the viewpoint of the Torah, but l'havdil the medical establishment understands that as well. And this is precisely why the government and World Health Organization haven't outlawed picnics at the park or shopping at ice cream stores, since these activities aren't actually killing anyone or directly endangering any specific person's life in actuality. Instead, the government's order to shelter in place is a policy (adopted by many countries -- but not by ALL countries) with stated objective to slow down the spread of the virus by limiting certain activities that it deems non-essential. Even though it was known that the disease would ultimately infect a vast majority of the population notwithstanding social-distancing, the intent was to strategically keep daily number of patients at a manageable level for medical providers.


Whether or not this policy is wise is not the point of our objection. "Flattening the curve" may well be a laudable and worthy objective. We object to the government's deeming the essentials of Judaism as "non-essential." This determination is no less than an egregious assault on religion!
We are astounded that many rabbis have not only agreed to parrot the government's policy of banning organized religion, but have gone wildly "beyond the letter of the law" by prohibiting outdoor minyanim even for ten Jews who have already contracted and recovered from the disease! And even if they respect "social-distancing laws," and even in Jewish neighborhoods that have already achieved herd immunity according to medical experts! 
As praiseworthy as it may seem, the policy of "flattening the curve" does not account for sufficient halachic grounds to shut down yeshivos, chadorim, shuls or study halls, and it certainly never justified banning tefila b'tzibur.
Even worse, it threatens to demoralize our people and recklessly put us all at risk by removing the very foundation of our existence.[5] It also establishes a dangerous precedent that the government may decide at whim to ban public worship or study, shut down yeshivos, and interfere with the most inviolable tenets of our religion, with nary a rabbinic protest.
We demand a proper psak din in writing from an authoritative posek taking responsibility for these extraordinarily bizarre and unprecedented policies once and for all. Short of that, we demand an immediate re-opening of all yeshivos, chadorim, shuls, in Jewish communities everywhere.
Sincerely,
Rabbi Michoel Green

Notes:

[1] Some sources:
The entire purpose of the creation of man is that Hashem’s presence should dwell in the world - and this is accomplished through Jews gathering (for Torah study and the performance of mitzvos) - ten Jews specifically! Tanya (Igeres Hakodesh epistle 23). See also Avos 3:6, Berachos 21b.
Ahaz reasoned: "... If there are no houses of prayer or study, G-d no longer causes His presence to dwell in the world." What did he do?  He rose and locked up all synagogues and houses of study, so that Jews can no longer occupy themselves in Torah study...
Why was his name "Ahaz?" It is because he seized (and locked up) the synagogues and houses of study... There had never been a time that was as severe for Israel as then, as it states: "And I shall hide My face on that day on account of all the evil that he did..."
Psichta to Esther Raba 11
Yerushalayim was destroyed only because the studies of tinokos shel beis rabban were interrupted, as it is stated: ...pour (the wrath) onto the babes outside (Yirmiyahu 6:11)... What is the reason that the wrath is poured? It is because the “babes were outside” (of their schools)...
The world only exists because of the breath of tinokos shel beis rabban (reciting Torah).
Shabbos 119b
[2] Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 576:5 Ramo and Magen Avrohom s'if kotton 3.
[3] There has already been a disturbing precedent of rabbis' silence or approval of halachically-dubious "public health" policies. Last year, 10,000 healthy children were banned from schools and yeshivos because of non-compliance with the mandatory vaccine schedule which no authoritative posek had ever endorsed or even allowed, and which leading halachic medical expert Rabbi Dr Avraham Steinberg has deemed unneccary and unjust. Likewise, no recognized authority on halacha ever sanctioned the ousting of these Jewish children from talmud Torah, yet some rabbis embraced this bizarre policy in the name of public health. Shockingly, these children were not permitted to return to school even after the measles outbreak was declared over. Surely such unprecedented and extraordinary actions required a detailed written psak taking responsibility for banning healthy children from talmud Torah, but alas no such psak was ever provided.
[4] See Shu"t Tzitz Eliezer 17:2. 
[5] See Berachos 61b.

[6] Mere statements from certain rabbis (several of which were never even signed!) are insufficient. Regarding Rabbi Asher Weiss's pamphlet on Corona: #1 he is not an accepted posek in mainstream, and #2 he did not provide any halachic rationale for shutting down schools and shuls. This is reminiscent of when he was cited as the posek who approved of policy that bans children from school because they weren't vaccinated for hepatitis-B, for example, but he had never written any such thing.


3 comments:

Unknown said...

Perfect. Your references are true. Your point is excellent. I commend you for your courage and knowledge.
We should all be davening with a minyan by Shavuous.

Chaim Yitzchok Vogel said...

BH you have the President on your side!

Unknown said...

In Eretz Yisroel there are outdoor minyonim all over the country. Now the shuls have opened partly to allow up to 50 daveners. But every step is coordinated with the Rabbonim and with the ministry of Health. That's what should happen in america as well.