Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Lessons from an Ominous Sign

Last week, I posted on Facebook about a deeply-unsettling incident at a prominent synagogue in which the Torah scroll spontaneously rolled off the bima [1] and fell to the floor in front of the startled congregation.

Fortunately, my article has made quite a commotion. People are beginning to be roused from their reverie.

I had sadly noted that this synagogue is rather extreme in its fanatic enforcement of covid policies, and of vaccine policy in general. Even worse, this congregation encourages its members to inform on fellow community members to local authorities, a horrific act of mesira [2]. Most egregious of all, the rabbis of this synagogue presided over the unprecedented action of shunning children from Jewish day schools and cruelly denying them an education, simply because for not being vaccinated for an STD! And as if that were not enough, they went on to petition the State of Florida to eliminate religious exemption to mandatory vaccination, thereby attempting to ban tens of thousands of children from school. Unthinkable.

As a rabbi and lifelong student of Judaic law, I observed that when such an ominous event occurs, it's customary to decree a fast and communal introspection. In the case of this community, one need not go too far to find an appalling lapse of Torah observance. I referred to the communal requirement to ensure that EVERY single child receive an education. Furthermore, I referred to the right of EVERY single Jew to attend synagogue, irrespective of halachically-unjust public health policies or covid courtesies. Lastly, I referred to the commandment to NOT malign or inform on your neighbor, or to marginalize anyone from the community, as this errant congregation has done.

It's obvious that a fallen Torah scroll represents a dire and unprecedented breach in Torah observance on part of that community. This is especially relevant as no one person dropped the Torah, but rather it spontaneously fell by itself. This clearly indicates a grave communal problem.

In Judaism, it's portentous even when a mezuza falls from a doorpost. How much more so when the most hallowed possession of every community, its Torah Scroll, falls from the bima [lectern from which the Torah is read] and onto the floor, at the holiest time of the holiest day of the week, no less!

Out of concern and compassion for this errant community, I implored them to repent their ways. I called attention to their grievous violations of halacha and begged them to cease and desist. There is no place in Judaism for blind obedience to the dictates of secularist public health policy and the doctors who promote them, which has become a modern-day pagan worship of sorts. [3]

Fortunately, many readers shared this vital message, and it made waves in that community.

The rabbi of the synagogue felt obliged to respond to my article. Sadly, instead of taking any responsibility for his lapse of leadership, he unrepentantly dug in his heels:

Perhaps the message of a Torah falling in BRS is to be stricter with coronavirus guidelines, not less. 

Woe unto him and woe unto his community.

The Torah fell due to the fact that everyone there had been fastidiously observing the guidelines of social distancing, so no one was close enough to secure it. Normally several individuals would have been standing at the lectern in close contact with the Torah. The Torah's fall was directly due to covid policies [4]. So his response is to suggest that they ought to be more strict in their adherence to these rules!?

To quote his astute observation, "to casually dismiss or ignore Hashem’s messages to us is to mute the Divine, to ignore the One Who is speaking to us, which is cruel both to Him and to ourselves."

Yes, his reaction is indeed cruel and dismissive of the clear Divine message.

This rabbi also had harsh words for me:

"Whether reacting to a fallen sefer Torah in a community or someone’s personal illness, we are never in a position to tell people why things are happening to them.  To do so, particularly with confidence and surety, is not only arrogant, it is to play God and compete with the Divine. It borders on heresy, even if you have 'rabbi' before your name."

With all due respect, I'd like to respond to this allegation.

For starters, "heresy" is the wrong word. The proper term here is ona'at devarim. This means that we are not permitted to hurt another person with words. The gemara applies this principle to not attributing a person's tragedy to a sin he committed [5], for doing so would constitute verbal abuse.

However, a fallen Sefer Torah is not akin to a personal tragedy, or a even a communal tragedy per se. No one was hurt, nor did anyone suffer illness, death, or financial loss. In the latter cases, the rabbi would be correct. We are not permitted to remind the bereaved individual of his sins at that time, or attribute his misfortunes to any misdeeds he may have committed. It's ona'at devarim.

A fallen Torah Scroll is quite different. It is NOT a tragedy, but just the opposite. It serves as an omen that might portend tragedy, Heaven forfend. Instead, it's clearly an act of Divine kindness, cautioning the community to mend its ways. The fact that the Torah fell in that shul at that time and place is recognized by halacha as an appropriate time for communal introspection. It is highly appropriate for other Jews, including those who do not reside in the community -- since "all Israel is mutually responsible for one another" [6] -- to send words of constructive rebuke and encourage them to rectify their ways. This is not called "playing G-d" at all. rather, it's called speaking up on G-d's behalf, on the Torah's behalf, for the welfare of the community and the benefit of klal Yisroel.

I find it rather ironic that the rabbi suggested that my being from afar deemed me less entitled to offer rebuke to his congregation, and insisted that his community ought to do the introspection themselves. I just wonder: did he or his colleague hesitate before petitioning their state legislature to eliminate religious exemption to mandatory vaccination, thereby ousting tens of thousands of children from school all across the state? Was the fate of those children within his narrow-minded jurisdiction? Who gave him any moral authority to dictate other people's religious beliefs, or to deprive any single child of an education anywhere outside of his own home? Who authorized him to provoke the ire and enmity (eiva) of untold thousands of non-Jewish Floridians who were aghast that a Jew -- and a rabbi no less -- would dare attack their religious freedom?

Has he or his colleague taken responsibility for this bizarre and unprecedented chilul Hashem? Is there any excuse for such brazen recklessness? Who does he think he is? 

Indeed, we ought not to "play G-d."

Jeopardizing the religious freedoms and personal medical choices of millions of Floridians definitely reeks of unparalleled arrogance.[7]

I cannot think of anything more cruel or dismissive of Torah values.

A "virus of playing G-d" indeed.

Except that this is no game. There's too much at stake.

The Torah sent them -- and all of us -- a sober message last Shabbos. [8]

I humbly implore this community and its rabbis to mend their ways. They ought to earnestly beg the apology of all the individuals and families who have been marginalized, disenfranchised, abused, or whose freedoms were threatened due to this congregation's irresponsible and unjust actions.



[1] Lectern or table from which the Torah is read.

[2] prohibited act of informing on one's fellow to secular authorities.

[3] See the harsh observations of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, recorded in Masoret Moshe, page 311.

[4] This synagogue imposed extreme measures that halachically problematic. No one may handle the Torah without gloves. See Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 91:5 Magen Avraham. See also See also Pesachim 57a regarding four occasions that caused the azarah (courtyard) of the Beis Hamikdash to (metaphorically) cry. One such cry was to banish a Kohen Gadol (high priest) named Yissachar Ish Kfar Barkai who “honored himself and disrespected the holy sacrifices.” The Gemara explains that this Yissachar would wear gloves while performing the service in the Beis Hamikdash. Rashi explains that it was disrespectful to the holy items (bizuy mitzvah) to wear gloves (besides for another issue of chatzitza). Other authorities explain the reason for the prohibition to wear gloves during prayer is because it is inappropriate to stand with gloves before a king, or because it is a sign of arrogance and haughtiness.

In the shul, only one person is allowed to be in close contact with the Torah and all others must stand at a distance of ten feet. Only the baal korei (reader) stands at the bima with no one standing adjacent to him to assist. Usually the bima would be flanked with two others. Furthermore, the oleh (one who is called to the Torah) is required to stand ten feet away! Clearly, the Torah had been left alone on the bima while all other stood from afar due to covid policy.

[5] Leviticus 25:17. Bava Metzia 58b: one form of ona’at devarim is to share opinions on why misfortune befell a person. The gemara identifies the friends of Iyov as having violated this form of ona’as devarim when they speculated that Iyov’s misfortunes are a result of his sin [Iyov 4:6]. Although we believe in the concept of reward and punishment, sharing these thoughts with a person who suffered the loss is a form of verbal abuse. This law is codified in Mishneh Torah, Laws of Sales 14:13, and in Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 228:4.

However, the gemara (Berachos 5b) records an episode that seems to contradict this rule. The gemara records that Rav Huna had a massive supply of wine which spoiled. The rabbis came to visit him and suggested that he try to determine which sin he may have committed to cause God to visit this loss upon him. The rabbis insisted that he must have committed a sin because God is just and would not punish somebody without cause. As it turns out, he discovered that failure to pay proper wages to his sharecropper was the sin responsible for the loss of the wine. Apparently, the rabbis had no hesitations about blaming Rav Huna’s misfortune on a sin that he had committed, seemingly in direct contrast to the gemara in Bava Metzia that considers such suggestions to be a form of ona’at devarim.

The Malbim writes that there is no contradiction at all. According to Tosafos (Berachos ad loc.), the rabbis only suggested that Rav Huna was being punished for a sin that he had committed because they had specific knowledge of the particular sin. After all, many great people who had never sinned suffer from all sorts of life’s difficulties without any explanation. The Malbim therefore suggests that the gemara only considers speculation about a sin to be ona’as devarim, but suggestions to rectify a known sin are not problematic, and indeed encouraged as part of the mitzvah to give proper rebuke to set a person on the proper path.

The sins of this congregation are well known and require no speculation. 

[6] See Sanhedrin 27b

[7] See Kidushin 70a: "כל הפוסל במומו פוסל -- he who disqualifies others does so using his own disqualifying defect."

[8] It should be mentioned that after writing that post, I became aware of another incident in Manchester, England, during which two Torah scrolls fell to the ground in an outdoor minyan several months back! In that particular case, wind blew the table over and caused the Torahs to fall. This is also an unmistakable sign that covid policy was the obvious culprit. Since the community had been banned from congregating in synagogue due to covid regulations and instead prayed outdoors, this unspeakable mishap occurred. Had the congregation disregarded covid policy and prayed indoors as Jewish law requires, it never would have occurred.

Surely a powerful lesson here is to start disregarding halachically-unjust covid policies like that one that led to the falling of two Torah scrolls.

Lastly, several months back, a missing word was found during the public Torah reading on Shabbos morning at the central Congregation Lubavitch, 770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn. This is was also certainly a cause for alarm regarding shockingly irresponsible rabbinic actions on covid policy in that community. Read here for my post on that topic. Also see Emes News article.

1 comment:

Y Sasportas said...

I learned years ago that the word Rabbi רבי can have 2 meanings as being the initials of different phrases. Rosh Benei Yisrael or Ra BeYisrael. The rabbi of that BRS synagogue is obviously of the 2nd type yerahhem Hashem