Unlocking the COVID-19 Lockdown: Halakhic Perspective on Leisure Activities

As we begin to emerge from lockdown and society gets used to our new routine, it is important to examine the halakhic ramifications of the new reality. The lockdown may be over but not the pandemic, which is still actively taking lives around the world. What are the halakhic guidelines for going out to public spaces for nonessential leisure activities, such as dinner at a restaurant, or going to the gym, a concert or the theater? How should we determine policies for reopening the shuls?

Before discussing the possibilities, it is imperative to stress our duties to protect other people. No one has any right to do any activity that puts others at risk. Endangering other people is equivalent to transgressing one of the Torah’s most fundamental commandments – “you shall not murder.” Someone who is feeling unwell or has any suspicious symptoms must be careful not to endanger others, so should stay away from any social gathering or public place. Furthermore, anyone who wishes to engage in leisure activities must wear a mask at all times to protect others against the slightest chance that they are asymptomatic carriers of the virus.

Assuming that one follows all the mandatory health guidelines and protocols to protect other people, is it permissible to place oneself at risk for the sake of engaging in nonessential activities? Apparently, one is not permitted to place oneself in any situation of risk, as the Shulchan Arukh rules[1]:

“Anyone who violates these, and similar things, and says “I am risking myself and what do others have on me, or I do not care”, will be given lashes of rebellion and one who is protective of these will have a good blessing on him.”

Does the risk of catching COVID-19 fall under the category of this prohibition?

On the other hand, the Gemara discusses in a couple of places[2] the permissibility of taking risks when that is the common behavior of the masses. “But nowadays, when the masses disregard the danger [we apply the verse[3]]  “G-d protects the simple.”” Could the fact the this has now become the common practice allow us to apply this to leisure activities? Could this argument also be utilized to permit reopening our shuls, on the basis that “G-d protects the simple”?

To review this dilemma, I wish to utilize an interesting discussion about the permissibility of elective cosmetic surgery. There are many halakhic and moral aspects to that debate, but I wish to focus on two elements that are relevant to our dilemma. One who wishes to undergo a cosmetic surgery is putting themselves in some danger, and taking an unnecessary risk, which could be compared to our dilemma. Furthermore, part of the motivation to undergo cosmetic surgery is the psychological pain that one may experience due to what might be perceived as a deformity. This could be compared to the stress and pressure that people have experienced in the past few months and, in that sense, leisure activities could serve to alleviate the stress of living through this pandemic. So, can we pasken that distress and mental health considerations might justify the risks involved in leisure activities?

Rabbi Avraham Bornstein of Sochaczew, in his book of responsa Avnei Nezer[4], published at the beginning of the 20th century, prohibited elective surgery to straighten the crooked leg of a newborn infant due to the risks involved, even where the doctors could guarantee that it is a safe operation. His explanation was that any operation is regarded as a life-endangering procedure, and since it is nonessential it is prohibited. The medical world has dramatically developed since those days and, already in the 1960s, many prominent poskim[5] claimed that it is obvious nowadays that the risk is minimal and such operations should be permitted. Rav Mordechai Yaakov Breish[6] explains that a tolerable risk is not included in the prohibition of endangering oneself:

“Would it be conceivable to prohibit traveling in a car or airplane, even though we evidently see and know how many accidents and mishaps happen to those who travel in them? Should we prohibit this because one should not enter a dangerous situation? Since the masses trample on it, it is permissible.”

More than a century before this discussion about cosmetic surgery took place, Rabbi Yaakov Ettlinger[7] examined a different dilemma involving taking a rational approach to weighing risks. He ruled that it is permissible to take a risk that most people would consider tolerable, and he proved it from Birchat HaGomel. Two of the four categories of people who need to recite Birchat HaGomel are seafarers and the desert explorers. If even a small risk is prohibited, how could they sail the seas or walk into the desert in the first place? Rabbi Ettlinger explains that when danger is not immediate and it is usually safe to engage in an activity, it is permissible:

When there is no immediate danger, rather only a concern for future danger, we follow the majority…Otherwise, how could one sail in the sea, or walk into the desert?”

The other relevant discussion is the validity of considerations of emotional pain or distress involved in refraining from social activity, particularly once the authorities permit them under certain safety guidelines. The Gemara in Masekhet Shabbat[8] permits one to scrape scabs to alleviate physical pain, although the procedure entails wounding one’s body, an action that is normally prohibited. However, the Gemara prohibits this action for the sake of beatification:

“One may scrape off the dirt scabs and wound scabs that are on his flesh because of the pain; [but] if [it is done] in order to beautify oneself, it is forbidden.”

However, Tosafot comment on this Gemara that wounding oneself for beatification would be permitted if it was meant to alleviate mental pain[9]:

 “If the only pain that he suffers is that he is embarrassed to walk among people then it is permissible, for there is no greater pain than this.”

Based on the principle laid out by the Tosafot, Rabbi Breish concluded that: “When one undergoes cosmetic surgery to alleviate the [emotional] pain, it is permissible”.

Since one is allowed to take a tolerable risk for the sake of emotional need. as long as one fully complies with the guidelines of the authorities, it should be permissible to engage in leisure activities, just as one is allowed to go on vacation and drive a car despite the risks of having an accident. Enjoying relaxing activities during stressful times is not really a luxury but rather an important emotional need, so one needs to use honest judgment when assessing the risks of any such activity in order to find the correct balance between staying safe and allowing yourself to relax. (Of course, if the environment does not feel safe, you may find yourself becoming more stressed, defeating the object of the exercise!)

From Restaurants to Minyanim

Alongside the analysis of whether it is permitted to go to a restaurant, we could use an analysis based on Kal Va’Chomer (an extrapolation from a minor premise to a major one) to consider whether an individual can permit himself or herself to go to shul to daven with a Minyan, and hence whether we as a community should be reopening our shuls, since for many people, attending  synagogue and reconnecting with their community meets an acute spiritual and emotional needs.

However, the analysis above is irrelevant to the dilemma of reopening the shuls. When it comes to Pikuach Nefesh, there is a major distinction between deciding on a private case and setting public policy. Although an individual is allowed to take a tolerable risk, the decision taken by a community or public entity  to take a similar risk, the statistical chances that individuals might be hurt are greater. Again, the issue of exposing other people to risk always overrides the question of whether an individual risks endangering himself.

The issue of public policy regarding Pikuach Nefesh is discussed in Chapter 8 of my new book, The Narrow Halakhic Bridge – A Vision of Jewish Law in the Post-Modern Age. There I address the psak of Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli[10], who allowed police activity on Shabbat even if most of the activity was not in life-endangering cases. He explained that, since statistically there will certainly sometimes be cases of clear Pikuach Nefesh, all police activity should be regarded as “enabling Pikuach Nefesh”. In his words[11]:

“For even if there is a chance of one in a thousand, saving one life at some time is enough to permit and to obligate us to do these activities that violate Shabbat, for they enable this act of saving. If we do not do them, we will not be able to effect this act of saving”.

I believe that the same rationale works in the opposite direction. Shul is a place designated for public gatherings and social closeness, and reopening shuls is more likely to endanger lives, since statistically it is almost certain that there will be carriers of the virus in some of the shuls. Especially during the summer, when outdoor minyanim may even be possible, it is preferable for our communities to take extra care and find safer solutions before allowing indoor minyanim as a principle of public policy.

Going with the Majority

The difference between statistical considerations concerning individual policy and public policy could be compared to one of the fascinating deliberations in the Gemara[12] about when the statistical majority should be followed. The Gemara provides two principles:

  • Man de’Parish me’Ruba Parish – anything that is separated is assumed to have come from the majority.
  • Kol Kavu’a ke’Mechtza Al Mechtza Dami – any item of uncertain status that remains in its fixed location is viewed as an uncertainty that is equally balanced (50:50).

The classic example is the following[13]:

“Nine stores all sell [kosher] meat and one other store sells meat of unslaughtered animal carcasses, and a person bought meat from one of them but he does not know from which he bought the meat. The meat is prohibited (since any item fixed in its place is that of an uncertainty that is equally balanced and one does not follow the majority).

And if the meat was found outside the stores – we follow the majority (and hence the meat is kosher).”

The first principle utilizes a simple statistical rule of following the majority, since it evaluates an individual object that was separated from the majority. The second principle, however, does not evaluate the individual object but rather the collective situation, and therefore, in each store there is a chance of 50:50 that the meat is non-kosher, since the status of the store is unknown.

The same rationale could be utilized to distinguish between individual cases of risk-taking during our pandemic, and public policy decisions. The collective situation should be examined carefully to minimize the chances that even one person – the  minority – would be hurt.

I hope and pray that a vaccine will be found quickly so that we  can soon return to our normal routine. Until then, while public restrictions are slowly being unlocked and removed, we must monitor the situation with caution, common sense and intellectual honesty, so as to manage risks to ourselves and, most importantly, so as not place anyone else’s health in danger.


[1] Shulchan Arukh, Choshen Mishpat 427: 10. The source of this halakha is in the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, Murderer and the Preservation of Life 11:5.

[2] Shabbat 129b; Ketuvot 29a; Yevamot 72a; Avodah Zarah 30b; Niddah 45a.

[3] Tehillim 116:6.

[4] Rabbi Avraham Bornstein of Sochaczew (1838-1910), Responsa Avnei Nezer, Yoreh De’ah 321.

[5] Responsa Chelkat Yaakov, Choshen Mishpat 31; Rabbi Menashe Klein, Responsa Mishneh Halakhot 4:246; Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Responsa Yabi’a Omer Vol. 8, Choshen Mishpat 12. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein also permitted undergoing cosmetic surgery, but he did not discuss the risk factor rather the prohibition of Chabbalah, i.e. wounding the body, cf. Responsa Iggerot Moshe, Choshen Mishpat 2:66. Among the rabbis who did not permit is Rabbi Eliezer Waldenburg in Responsa Tzitz Eliezer 11:41 and Rabbi Yitzhak Yaakov Weiss in Responsa Minchat Yitzchak 6:105:2.

[6] Rabbi Mordechai Yaakov Breish, Rabbi of the Haredi community of Zurich (1838-1910), Responsa Chelkat Yaakov, Choshen Mishpat 31.

[7] Rabbi Yaakov Ettlinger of Altona (1798-1871), Responsa Binyan Zion 137.

[8] Shabbat 50b

[9] Tosafot, Shabbat 50b, s.v. “Bishvil Tza’aro

[10] Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli (1909-1995), Rabbi of Kfar HaRo’eh, Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav, a dayan and member of the Executive Council of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate

[11] Amud HaYemini 17:8, p.213.

[12] Masekhet Ketubot 15a

[13] Ibid.

mount sinai by schmaeche

Understanding Na’aseh V’Nishma in a Post-Modern World

‘Na’aseh V’Nishma’ (we will do and we will hear) is one of the major challenges facing the Jewish world in the post-modern age. This proclamation, made by the people of Israel when they stood at Mount Sinai, is regarded as a national declaration of total subjugation to G-d’s will, accepting the Torah in its entirety without question. Unqualified obedience, however, is quite literally the opposite of today’s post-modern spirit, which offers boundless pluralism and moral relativism, unlimited possibilities, and endless freedom.

The breakdown of authority and the rejection of commitment in post-modern times are posing an unprecedented challenge to the continuity of Jewish tradition. I fear that if we fail to provide a comprehensive, authentic response to these challenges, even our halakhically observant Jewish communities will shrink dramatically within a generation or two.

In my new book, The Narrow Halakhic Bridge: A Vision of Jewish Law in the Post-Modern Age, I deal at length with this challenge. Changing the Halakhah to make it lighter and easier to observe has never been an effective solution; it has been proven futile throughout history, because without commitment there is no continuity. However, we can and should change the way we transmit Halakhah so that our young people are more likely to listen.  

One of the elements of the vision I suggest in my book is what I define as “Empowering Psak”. A definition of this approach to religious decision making can be found in the introduction to the responsum of one of the greatest poskim (decision-makers) of the last generation, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, in his book “Iggerot Moshe”:

“And since I have written my reasons and everything that I clarified, in this way, I am just one who is teaching the Halakhah and the questioner can investigate for himself, check, and choose, so I am not at all considered to be ruling.”

Rabbi Feinstein repeatedly emphasizes that everything written in his book is only his opinion and that he is unworthy of being a posek. Nevertheless, he perceives his role as organizing and presenting the Halakhah to whoever is interested to learn from it. According to this approach, the posek creates a halakhic dialogue and empowers his followers to learn and take responsibility for their decisions. That is why traditional Halakhic psak does not only present the Rabbi’s final conclusion, but rather shares their Halakhic thought process, including an analysis of relevant factors and a presentation of a whole range of considerations. This process allows every questioner to see the context and to understand the Halakhic process. (By contrast, the new phenomenon of text message responsa delivers a very concise psak sometimes just a one word answer– and I believe this new trend is destroying the richness of the Halakhic system and disempowering the questioners.)  

This need to empower the questioner is especially relevant and necessary in our post-modern times, where the status of the individual is such a dominant concern. Rather than simply presenting a ruling, the posek should review all relevant factors and give his followers a toolbox for making Halakhic decisions, so that ultimately they will be able to decide for themselves. 

The recent Zoom Seder controversy is an example of how this approach would have been helpful. The reasonings of the rabbis who permitted isolated family members to connect using technology were valid, but so were the concerns of the poskim who prohibited it. This was a very delicate matter, with each individual coping in different ways with the enormous challenges of lockdown. I believe that the poskim should have set out the various factors, considerations and concerns involved in their decisions, and let people make their own decisions based on their own unique circumstances. This would have encouraged more respect for and trust in the Halakhic system, instead of showing rabbis arguing with each other and sometimes even verbally attacking each other without trying to understand each other’s positions.

Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook offered a very creative interpretation of Na’aseh V’Nishma, which corresponds with this approach of empowering psak: 

“Every piece of information which is found in nature does not require any precedent in order to be repeated. A bee, for example, can construct its beehive in a singularly accurate method without hearing any lesson of geometry, because this knowledge is imprinted instinctively in its nature.” (Ma’amrei HaReiya I:171)

As in nature, instinctive knowledge does not need to be learned in order to be realized and inherent wisdom can be actualized without study because it is naturally understood. An artist, for example, can produce a basic level of art because of the internal talent with which he or she is born; this natural talent is represented by the word Na’aseh. Artists must, however, study for many years to refine their talent, and that is the role of the word Nishma

Thanks to the information revolution, we can all acquire plenty of knowledge. However, most of this knowledge is external and does not necessarily connect with our inner essence, as Rav Kook explains:

“Only humans, who might be perplexed by false knowledge and chaos, need to make an effort to restore their purely spiritual nature…At Mount Sinai, we returned to this level of greatness and became pure natural Israelites, and therefore we said ‘Na’aseh’ before ‘Nishma’, (accepting the Torah) above all the false cultures of humanity”. 

We live in a chaotic and perplexing world, constantly bombarded by contradictory ideas and concepts, and so we need to make greater efforts to restore our pure spiritual nature. At Mount Sinai, at the height of human revelation, we returned to our natural level of greatness and became “pure natural Israelites”. We began to feel the Torah from the innermost source — ourselves. We did not need to hear before acting; we could instinctively sense God’s will and follow the commandments naturally. Based on this approach, the most authentic Torah learning comes not from external sources but rather from revealing our internal essence. When that happens, the external knowledge of Torah assists us in developing our spiritual intuitive understanding. Perhaps this approach of Rav Kook to Na’aseh V’Nishma is what our generation needs. Not a system of suppressing human understanding to achieve obedience, but rather a system of empowerment and trust.

In this age of free information, it is hard to expect a community to listen to its rabbi with unquestioning obedience and submission. Appealing to authority is less effective than it once was, and using coercion will not bring the community to a more elevated spiritual level. Many people, particularly the younger generation, observe mitzvot from a place of choice, not from coercion or fear of rabbinic authority. Orthodox rabbis in the post-modern era need to create a Halakhic dialogue through which they can empower their communities. 

Furthermore, our generation craves transparency. Halakhic decisions that are made behind closed doors are more likely to be greeted with doubt and skepticism. Precisely because today’s Jewish community is more educated, we should not be scared to share the Halakhic process with them, including our considerations and dilemmas and the factors behind our decisions. In making Halakhic psak more transparent, we should also explain the severity of different prohibitions, the legitimacy of various allowances, and the full range of possible solutions. Sometimes, rabbis issuedecisions that combine Torah prohibition with a new stringency (chumra), without explaining the huge difference between the authority of the former and the latter. This phenomenon has led many people to lose trust in Halakhah and disrespect the entire Jewish legal system. It is important for the rabbi to share his recommendation, and also explain how he himself would act in the questioner’s place, but ultimately he should encourage them to decide on the right conclusion for themselves.

“Empowering psak” is a critical need in our generation, to continue the everlasting chain of Na’aseh V’Nishma and reinforce the observance of Halakhah. In light of the breakdown of authority and obedience in the world, I believe that we need to replace rabbinic authority with inspiration, in order to build greater respect for the institution of the rabbinate through respectful interpersonal interaction and connection.

This article appears in the June 22 edition of the Jerusalem Report.

Rav Nachum Rabinovitch

Between Matan Torah and Da’at Torah

Next week, we will commemorate the shloshim of Rabbi Nachum Eliezer Rabinovich zt”l, one of the giants of our generation. As we approach Shavuot, I wish to consider the validity of Da’at Torah through the prism of his unique approach, which I discuss at length in my new book “The Narrow Halakhic Bridge –A Vision of Jewish Law in the Post-Modern Age”.

Soon after Matan Torah, G-d commanded the Jewish people to follow the words of the majority of the rabbis and obey their authority: “You shall neither follow the majority to do evil, you shall not pervert justice in a dispute; follow after the majority.” (Shemot 23:2) There are different opinions as to whether this rule still applies after the dissolution of the Sanhedrin, but the dispersion of the Jewish community at that time made it technically impossible to count the majority anyway. However, the need to transmit the voice of the majority of the rabbis never ceased to exist, and throughout the generations there have been attempts to find ways to continue that tradition.  

The expression Da’at Torah in its modern context became common in the second half of the 19th century, referring to the opinion of the rabbinical leadership being understood to represent the living words of G-d. This was a reaction to the many social transformations that severely threatened the Orthodox community at this time, such as the increase of secularization and modernization that came with the Enlightenment and the growth of the Reform Movement. These social and religious changes created many ‘cracks’ in the walls of the Torah, driving the rabbinical leadership to build a collective framework to strengthen the status of the Torah and Halakhah in their communities. In addition, the support of some major European rabbis for the Zionist movement encouraged other rabbis who opposed it to separate themselves. They established their status as having Da’at Torah, so their opinion must be followed instead of the other rabbis whose views did not represent Da’at Torah.

The rationale behind the idea of Da’at Torah is the simple belief that the solutions to all of the world’s ailments are found in the Torah.  Only the greatest Torah scholars, who are able to be objective and without personal biases, can reveal this absolute Truth – the Divine will – to the world. The Chafetz Chaim expressed this idea as follows:

“Someone who has Da’at Torah can solve any problem in the world in general and [also] specific cases. However, that is under the condition that his Da’at Torah is entirely pure without any bias. However, if you meet a person who has Da’at Torah but this is mixed with even a small amount of other knowledge, from the marketplace or the newspapers, then his Da’at Torah is muddled, mixed with dross, and unable to fully understand the matter.” (Likkutei Chafetz Chayim p. 30) 

According to the Chafetz Chayim, the lack of academic knowledge is actually an advantage for Torah scholars, because it frees them of any considerations that are outside the scope of the Torah and makes them ‘objective’. According to this approach, a rabbi who achieves the level of Da’at Torah essentially becomes an angel, as the Chazon Ish wrote:

“One who merits to know the Torah walks among people; they think that he is a person, but in truth he is an angel.” (Iggerot Chazon Ish 1:13)

However, like every new phenomenon, it has its downsides.  Da’at Torah is often misused to reject the views of rabbis with a differing ideology, with the claim that their opinion is not valid because they are in some way  lesser rabbis. For example, Da’at Torah  was used as a tool to invalidate other opinions in religious-political disputes regarding the establishment of the Zionist movement and the State of Israel. 

Rabbi Nachum Eliezer Rabinowitz claimed that the use of Da’at Torah in order to create blind faith on public matters is actually the very opposite of Emunat Chakhamim – faith in our sages. Rather, faith in the rabbis is meant to deepen and strengthen discourse in the rabbinic world, and not to silence the opinions of rabbis with different worldviews by claiming they are not great enough to voice their opinions. He wrote:

Emunat Chakhamim is not meant to prevent disputes that are the result of different worldviews and different evaluations of the various considerations. Emunat Chakhamim demands a serious attitude toward all of the rabbis, along with a sincere attempt to understand them. This requires great effort in studying Torah and developing clear Halakhic thinking skills. And if ultimately there is a need to discern between different approaches, Emunat Chakhamim places a great responsibility on the person making the decision to act in accordance with the truth as he is capable of recognizing it . . .

True Emunat Chakhamim demands deep analysis in order to find the reasoning of the rabbis’ words, and at the same time, places responsibility on the learner or questioner to engage in meticulous criticism, to examine whether there is room to disagree. It is obvious that there are reasons behind their decisions, but whether or not these should be followed as practical Halakhah still needs to be clarified . . .

Lately, there are those who use the concept of Emunat Chakhamim in a completely different way, in a way that the Sages did not speak of at all, as if the rabbis have prophetic authority regarding non-halakhic matters as well . . . There are those who term this childish behavior Emunat Chakhamim but this is nothing less than the distortion of a great principle, and rather than acquiring true Torah the people who cling to this distorted Emunat Chakhamim distance themselves from the light of Torah and ultimately do not know the difference between their right and their left.” (Darkah Shel Torah, p. 210) 

Da’at Torah does not demand blind obedience to rabbinic leaders. Instead, it demands that we engage in critical thinking and take responsibility for our actions.  When I quoted Rabbi Rabinovich in my book he was still alive. I’m rewriting these words now with tears in my eyes, as this courageous voice of sense and authenticity is no longer with us. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen some positive examples of the use of Da’at Torah, and also some poor applications. As a relatively new member of the Rabbinical Council of America, I have been very inspired by the courageous and sensitive Halakhic leadership of Rabbi Hershel Schachter and Rabbi Mordechai Willig and felt safe in their hands. The American rabbinic leadership has taken the approach that, in order to win the fight against the Coronavirus, it is not enough to be compliant with the instructions of the authorities, but we should be proactive in reducing any possible risk and preventing any form of social gathering. We have seen similar voices in Israel to, including Rabbi Osher Weiss’ call to stop all rogue minyanim. 

At the same time, we have seen unfortunate instances of the abuse of the name of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky by some Haredi activists, who have promulgated his Da’at Torah in a manipulative way. They have presented a distorted picture of Rabbi Kanievsky by misrepresenting his one-word statement that yeshivot and shuls should not be closed, when it is unlikely that he understood what he was being asked. The chaos that we saw in Israel’s Haredi neighborhoods was partly due to the manipulations of rabbinic authority by these politicians, and sadly many lives were lost as a result.

My words are not intended, God forbid, to criticize Rabbi Kanievsky, who was almost certainly not aware of this manipulation. Rather I wish to point out the dangerous power of some Haredi politicians, who took advantage of his situation to push their own dangerous agenda, that has not only endangered the Haredi community but also damaged the reputation of its true leaders.

When we come to look back on the COVID-19 era, it will be interesting to see whether the concepts of Da’at Torah or Emunat Chakhamim and their observance in the Haredi community will have been changed in any way by these events. I personally hope that people will be wary of blind obedience to Da’at Torah, which often has more to do with politics than with Torah.

With all the uncertainty in the air surrounding the implications of the global Coronavirus crisis, one thing is very clear: the courageous voice of Rabbi Rabinovich will be sorely missed. 

May we all soon emerge in good health and with greater wisdom from this ordeal.

Rabbinic Disputes

Ke’Ish Echad be’Lev Echad – Changing the Culture of Rabbinic Disputes

A new elected rabbi came to his new shul for the first time, filled with excitement.  His first rabbinical challenge occurred during Kriyat Shema. Half the congregants stood up to recite the Shema and the other half remained sitting. Then, the sitting folks started yelling at those standing to sit down, and the ones standing up yelled at those sitting down to stand up. The confused new rabbi called an urgent meeting with his board but soon realized that his board was also divided on the issue. One of the board members suggested consulting Chaim, one of the founders of the shul now living in a nursing home. The rabbi hoped the old man would be able to shed light on the original minhag of the community and he went with representatives of each party to visit Chaim.

The congregants who stand during Shema asked Chaim, “Is the tradition to stand during Shema?” The old man replied, “No, that is not the minhag.” The other group then asked, “So then the tradition is to sit?” Chaim answered, “No, that is not our minhag.” The rabbi, totally confused and desperate asked Chaim with a choked voice: “But in that case, the congregants will continue to fight and yell at each!” Chaim responded with a smiling face, “Well, that is our minhag!”

This old joke is actually the reality of thousands of years of dispute between Jews about laws and tradition. Perhaps the last time in history we were fully united was when we approached Mount Sinai, as expressed in Rashi’s well-known commentary: “And there Israel encamped ke’ish echad be’lev echad  -as one man and with one mind – but all their other encampments were made with grumbling and dissension”. The explanation for this is quite simple: Once the Torah was given, a journey of endless disputes had begun. 

Every day, at the end of morning prayers, we recite the statement of Rav Chanina that ”Torah scholars increase peace in the world”, and we are often left wondering: is this statement meant to be sarcastic? There are many compliments that can rightfully be given to Torah scholars – they may increase Torah, knowledge, and holiness. But peace? That would seem to be the farthest thing from the world of the Torah scholars, where arguments constantly rage regarding Halakhah, Aggadah, philosophy, etc. The entire Gemara is essentially a collection of numerous, complex Rabbinic arguments.

In my new book, “The Narrow Halakhic Bridge: A Vision of Jewish Law in the Post-Modern Age”, I deal at length with the concept of dispute and peace in rabbinic tradition. One of the dilemmas I try to address is why machloket plays such a prominent part in the Jewish tradition.

Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook addressed this question in one of his famous homilies, on the blessing “Blessed is He Who discerns secrets” which is recited when seeing a gathering of 600,000 Jews. The Sages said:

One who sees a crowd of Jews says, ‘Blessed is He Who discerns secrets,’ for their minds are unlike each other and their faces are unlike each other.” (Berakhot 58b)

Rav Kook explains that people have different attributes and opinions, a diversity which is the result of both their inborn nature and the influence their environment. These traits also affect a person’s outward appearance and their face. Every person contains the secret of their creation – their role and mission in the world. G-d, the “Knower of Secrets”, has a divine purpose for all of the various opinions and disputes that circulate the world. On account of the differences between people, everyone will ultimately unite toward one goal and create a single, harmonious picture together, by every individual contributing his own unique gifts and talents. The remarkable constitution of humankind requires the existence of machloket, for without it, no one would be able to discover their unique qualities, and thus no one would fulfill their unique mission, as Rav Kook argues:

“And if people would know of their inner congruence, each person would pull toward their [specific] group with exceeding zealousness and individuality would disappear, and then there would be no material to build the community.”

If people thought they were the same, machloket would not be created, because individuals would not struggle to prove their uniqueness, and thus the world would not develop as it ought to. Machloket creates a dynamic that catalyzes the world’s progress, as the Talmudic Sages said: “Rabbis’ jealousy increases wisdom.” (Bava Batra 21a). When everyone is forced to think in the same way, when individuality is erased, ambition is squashed, progress ceases, and society stagnates. Machloket demands of every individual to define for himself who he is and how he is different from his fellow. In Rav Kook’s words:

“That is why G-d built into nature that each individual can only relate to the world from his own perspective and be convinced by this [perspective], for in this way he perfects what is proper for him. Sometimes, he thinks that the wishes of his fellow are unnecessary for the world. But if his opinions were as close to the understandings of his fellow as he feels close to himself, his attachment to his own uniqueness would weaken, causing the perfection of his own uniqueness to be deficient, which would result in a deficiency of the entire community.”

A homogenous society will shrivel up, as we have seen with most of the Communist regimes that failed. Only a multiplicity of opinions leads to healthy competition and mutual enrichment. If striving for tolerance and peace between individuals is achieved by erasing differences, we will damage humanity’s composition and the world’s progress. Dispute is one of the foundation stones of the world’s construction and must not be demolished.

The concept of machloket is even more significant in the context of the world of Torah and Jewish law. Without it, the Torah would stagnate and ossify, as Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin explained:

“Torah study is called ‘war,’ for it is written ‘the war of Torah’; if this is so, Torah scholars must be called ‘warriors.’ As our Sages taught, ‘even a father and his son, a teacher and his student, who are engaged in a debate over a matter of Torah, become enemies . . .’ (Kiddushin 30b). A student is forbidden from accepting his teacher’s words when he has questions about them. And sometimes, the truth will lie with the student, just as a small tree (a match) can ignite a large one.” (Ru’ach Chayim 1:4)

When debating, if a student prematurely concedes to his teacher, or a child to his parent, their Torah learning will be lacking. Torah can only develop through lively, vibrant dispute, so every student is encouraged to fight the “war of Torah”.

Not only does the preponderance of disputes in the world of Halakhah not detract, but it allows Halakhah to be heard more clearly and harmoniously, like an orchestra of many instruments whose music we hear as one harmonious symphony. As the Arukh HaShulchan writes in his introduction:

“When you wonder about the many opinions and their disputes about the law’s details, know that you do not ask this wisely . . . On the contrary, this is the splendor of our holy and pure Torah. All of the Torah is called a song; the splendor of a song is when there are different voices in it, and this is the main source of its pleasantness. One who explores the sea of Talmud will see the pleasantness of all of the different voices within it.”

Although machloket is the very foundation of Jewish tradition, it can become a destructive tool if we abuse it and replace respect with contempt. Too many times in Jewish history, rabbis have endangered Halakhah by the nature of their discourse, when it was not for the sake of Heaven. In our times, we often see Jewish news  headlines claiming that one rabbi has attacked another over the latter’s views or psak; we saw this recently regarding the controversy about using Zoom on Leil HaSeder. One accuses the other of extremism, and the latter responds with accusations of liberalism and reformation.

At times, it seems difficult to find examples of real listening and authentic discourse. Rabbis often respond in a Pavlovian way to other rabbis, simply because of their identity, without any real attempt to listen to what they said or why. For many years, I also fought in these battlefields, from which I now try to stay as far away as possible.

At several points in my book, I mention the Chatam Sofer’s great-grandson, Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Glasner, the Dor Revi’i. The introduction to his book should be read by the contemporary rabbinic world as a warning sign:

“The land has filled with flattery, and thinking is quashed by powerful individuals who speak loftily, but are ready at any moment to strike down anyone who opposes their opinion, and whoever is more violent prevails. For naught will a person attempt to fight with the weapons of truth, intellect, and logic, because instead of contradicting his words with clear proofs, answering one teaching with another, and one thought with an opposing one, they will oppose him brazenly with bad-mouthing, slander, lashon hara, and other lowly means of people lacking any sense of ethics or real knowledge.”

Rabbi Glasner describes a reality where rabbis are violently silenced simply because others disagree with their ideas. I would argue that there does not need to be agreement on every issue, but rabbinic disputes must be conducted respectfully.

Perhaps this is the meaning of Rav Chanina’s teaching that Torah scholars increase peace in the world. Since by definition it is essential to have disputes between rabbis, it is their primary responsibility to regulate the way they argue with one another. We can and must disagree with one another, but it must be done respectfully. One must not speak disparagingly of his opponent, and one must not reject what is said simply because of who said it. One should argue with the claim itself and not with the claimant.

During the horrific COVID-19 pandemic, we have experienced unprecedented acts of solidarity and unity in the Jewish community across all sectors and denominations. I hope and pray that this spirit of unity will make a significant impact on our rabbinical leadership, inspiring them to serve the Jewish community ‘ke’ish echad be’lev echad’ , and with a tremendous amount of mutual respect, despite the endless disputes that will always continue to exist between us.

Yom Haatzmaut Corona

Yom Ha’atzmaut, ‘She’Hecheyanu’ and the Coronavirus

Yom Ha’atzmaut during Corona times will look very different to anything we have ever experienced. In Israel, total lockdown will replace the endless holiday traffic jams, and a modest home-grill will for many take the place of the traditional charcoal barbecue. But this year, more than ever, it is imperative to thank Hashem for the great miracle of the establishment of the State of Israel.

72 years ago we were a collection of survivors, dry bones that had survived the Holocaust and the pogroms that preceded it. Today, Israel is one of the top seven countries in the fight against the Coronavirus. We are the “start-up nation”, an empire of science and technology that has one of the world’s strongest militaries. While the world’s leading countries absorbing tens of thousands of casualties from the Corona pandemic, Israel remains one of the safest places on earth. Specifically this year on Yom Ha’atzmaut, I believe we should recite the ‘She’Hecheyanu’ blessing – “Who has given us life, sustained us, and helped us to reach this moment.” We ought to thank G-d for this great miracle.

According to the Gemara in Eruvin, the ‘She’Hecheyanu’ blessing is said on every festival that originates from the Torah – Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. On the rabbinical festivals, Chanukah and Purim, the ‘She’Hecheyanu’ blessing is also said on the special mitzvah related to these days – the lighting of the Menorah or the reading of the Megillah. There is a dispute among the later poskim as to whether we can bless ‘She’Hecheyanu’ on Chanukah and Purim when the commandments of the day cannot be fulfilled. In other words, do rabbinical festivals have the same status as Torah festivals, and should the ‘She’Hecheyanu’ blessing should be recited without the special mitzvah attached to them? Rabbi Moshe Feinstein rejected this possibility and concluded: “It is clear to me that we should not recite the ‘She’Hecheyanu’ blessing on the day itself of Chanukah, nor even on the day of Purim [rather on the special mitzvot of these days].” (Iggerot Moshe, Orach Chaim, 5:20).

So, what about Yom Ha’atzmaut? There is a psak of the Chatam Sofer that a community that experienced a salvation miracle could designate a special Yom Tov in memory of the miracle: “This is the custom of some communities and a few great individuals, who establish a holiday for themselves in commemoration of a miracle that was done to them…However, this is valid only to a great miracle of salvation from death to life, as happened in the days of Mordechai and Esther”. (Chatam Sofer Responsa, Orach Chaim 1:191)

Rabbi Meshulam Rata, a Dayan in the Great Rabbinical Court and a member of the Chief Rabbinate Council during the days of the establishment of the State of Israel, claimed that the halakhic ruling of the Chatam Sofer is most relevant to Yom Ha’atzmaut:  “There is no doubt that this day (5 Iyar) that was set by the government and the members of the Knesset (who represent the majority of the population) and the majority of the great rabbis to celebrate in all the land as a memorial of the miracle of our salvation and freedom, it is a mitzvah to make it into a day of rejoicing as on a holiday and to say Hallel… And it is obvious that in our case, relating to the entire community of Israel –that this involves a redemption from slavery to freedom, for we were redeemed from subjugation to other nations and became a free people achieving national independence, and also this is a case of redemption from death to life, for we were saved from the hands of our enemies who arose to destroy us – certainly, there is an obligation to set the day as a holiday.” (Kol Mevasar Responsa, 1:21).

Further on, Rabbi Rata discusses the possibility of blessing ‘She’Hecheyanu’ on Yom Ha’atzmaut. Rabbi Rata argues that anyone who feels genuine joy at the rebirth of the State can make the Bracha. He bases his ruling on an earlier ruling by the Bach, Rabbi Yoel Sirkis, that there is no concern of making an unnecessary blessing of ‘She’Hecheyanu’ when a person feels genuine joy in his heart. The conclusion of Rabbi Rata, for those who rejoice about the miracle of independence, that this blessing is mandatory:

“Anyone who wants to bless ‘She’Hecheyanu’ has permission to do so, and there is no concern of a blessing uttered in vain. Furthermore, those who genuinely enjoy and rejoice in the event of the State’s revival … their blessing is not just an option but rather an obligation.” Finally, Rabbi Rata ruled that it is appropriate to attach the blessing of ‘She’Hecheyanu’ to the Hallel, as we have seen in the cases of Purim and Chanukah where the blessing of ‘She’Hecheyanu’ is attached to the special mitzvah of the day.

More than sixty years prior to the establishment of the State, the Sfat Emet, the Gerrer Rebbe, predicted Yom Ha’atzmaut In his commentary, each festival of the Torah gave our nation the power to establish a parallel rabbinical festival: “… by the merit of the Israelites in properly observing their Torah holidays, a significant impression remained in them from each Yom Tov and empowered them to establish their other corresponding festivals. Chanukkah is a reflection of Sukkot, and Purim is a reflection of Shavuot. And regarding Pesach, we hope to establish another corresponding festival as it was said, ‘I will show him wondrous deeds as in the days when You left the land of Egypt.'”(Sefat Emet, Chanukah, 1881). For two thousand years, we waited for the third rabbinical festival to complete the series with the second festival of independence, which derives its power from Pesach, the ancient festival of liberty. The halakhic parallels between Yom Ha’atzmaut and the festivals of Chanukah and Purim is compelling.

Seventy-five years ago, the Holocaust ended when six million Jews were brutally murdered. Three years later, the State of Israel was founded and its population numbered slightly more than six hundred thousand people, a number equal to the census of the people in the Exodus, and a number that according to our Sages, is the minimum for the establishment of a nation in the State of Israel: “Ulla said, ‘We have a tradition that there is no congregation in Babylonia. The Rabbis taught, ‘A congregation is no fewer than six hundred thousand people.’” (Berakhot 58a) The Gemara presents two conditions to define the Jewish people, a location, and a quantity. The only place that we can live as a nation is in the Land of Israel, and the minimum number to be considered a ‘nation’ is six hundred thousand.

More than seventy years ago, we saw the re-establishment of the State of Israel. Six hundred thousand Jews, among them many survivors of the Holocaust, became partners in the realization of the visions of the prophets, establishing a State that against all odds has become a country that leads the world in many spheres.

The number of Jews currently living in Israel is over 6.7 million, which means that more than six million have been added to the Israeli population since the establishment of the State. Moreover, for the first time since the destruction of the First Temple, Israel is home to the largest population of Jews in the world. According to some of the leading demographers, within a few years, the majority of the world’s Jews will reside in Israel, a fact that has profound halakhic implications.

There is no doubt that, without exaggeration, we can say today that the Jewish people’s successful return to the Land of Israel, after two thousand years of exile, persecution, massacres, and assimilation, is one of the greatest miracles the Jewish people has ever experienced. That is why on Yom Ha’atzmaut  we must lift our heads, acknowledge the great miracle, and bless the Almighty will full intent: ‘She’Hecheyanu’ – “who has given us life, sustained us, and helped us to reach this moment.”

Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren also ruled that one should say the blessing ‘She’Hecheyanu’ on Yom Ha’atzmaut. One year, Rabbi Goren celebrated Yom Ha’atzmaut in one of the religious kibbutzim and made the bracha with great enthusiasm.  When people asked him for the reason he recited the blessing, he replied with typical sarcasm:  “Don’t worry, I have a new tie.” Anyone who is still unsure whether the resurrection of the State of Israel is sufficient reason to bless ‘She’Hecheyanu’ is welcome to purchase a new tie!

Chag Sameach and prayers for good health for Israel and the entire world.

This article will be published in The Jewish Press on Yom Ha’atzmaut.