Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Bad Advice?

R' Chaim Soloveichik (Wikipedia)
I have just been informed by a source (who shall remain anonymous) that 2 Charedi rabbinic leaders in a major American city, both of whom I genuinely admire and respect,  have told some people who asked - that Tefila B’Tzibur (praying with a Minyan) is OK - if done outside, care is taken about social distancing, and they don’t tell anybody. Even as we are all still required to shelter in place.

I see this as a mistake. Allowing Tefila B’Tzibur is - in my view - questionable under the current circumstances of Safek Sakanos Nefoshos. Not only is there a risk of catching a life threatening disease, there is a risk of spreading it. Even though they were told to practice social distancing and not tell anyone else that they are doing it.  

I am dismayed by this development. I am not going to embarrass these 2 rabbis by exposing who they are. I’m sure they believe that they are doing the right thing and that the risk is so minimal that it can be permitted – if done in this discreet and limited way. They are two of the most Torah knowledgeable and Ehrliche people I know - both of whom respect what doctors tell them.

My sincere hope is that those that are doing this will stay safe. But hope is not the same as taking the precautions advised by public health officials Which are as noted - necessary for personal safety and the prevention of spread. Even though these rabbinic leaders have advised them to be careful and  minimize the danger, it still exists. 

Perhaps more importantly once other Orthodox Jews start seeing them doing this they might rationalize that it is safe for them to do it too. Thereby increasing the numbers at risk.

One of the things I am proud of here in Chicago is  that – to the best of my knowledge - only 2 Orthodox Jews have lost their lives because of COVID-19. This is of course not to minimize the loss. The entire Jewish community was saddened by this horrible news. But that there hasn’t been a lot more is a tribute to the unity of the Orthodox rabbinic establishment here.  And to our resolve to follow the guidelines advocated by them and by public health officials.

Additionally I am only aware of 3 other Orthodox Jews in Chicago that were hospitalized with serious complications from COVID. All of whom have survived and are now convalescing at home. (There may be more. I can’t say for sure. But that kind of news is usually made public for the sake of public prayer on their behalf. And I haven’t heard anything.)

One might defend these rabbinic leaders by pointing to Chicgao’s low rate of death and serious illness and therefore allowing Tefila B’Tzibur to take place under the restrictions they require.

But my response would be the following. There is a rather famous story told about R’ Chaim Soloveichik. (It has also been told in the name of Yisroel Salanter. Not sure which one is accurate. It may have happened to both.)

It was at a time where there was a similar illness plaguing the world. Health officials had urged the Jewish Community not to fast that Yom Kippur in order to better fight the disease. R’ Chaim stood up after Kol Nidrei, urged everyone to not fast that Yom Kippur. He then took a glass of water, made a Bracha and drank it all down.  

He was later asked why he was Mekil – lenient in drinking it all down at once. Why didn’t he at least do it in a manner that would minimize the severity of breaking a fast on Yom Kippur? An offense that - if done deliberately - carries the severe penalty of Kares – cutting off one’s soul from his people!

He could instead have done it by drinking less than the minimal amount at a time (about a nine minute period) which would make it a none biblical level offense. His answer was that he wasn’t being Mekil on Yom Kippur. He was being Machmir on Pikuach Nefeseh!

He knew that fasting would not necessarily mean death in every instance. Most people would probably not get it - or survive it if they did.

Davening without a Minyan comes nowhere near breaking a fast on Yom Kippur. Does anyone think for a minute that R’ Chaim would have done things differently now?

I am disappointed. I know how important it is to Daven with a Minyan. I had been doing it every single day – 3 times a day until this pandemic required me to stop. I don’t like it one bit. It is uncomfortable to stop a routine one is used to - which takes the Mitzvah of Tefilah (prayer) to a higher and more meaningful level.

But that is only when lives are not at stake. Because when they are, I have to question, ‘What is gained by taking a chance with one’s life –no matter how slight?’ The Torah tells us ‘V’Chai Bahem (Vayikra – 18:5). We are required to LIVE by Torah law. Not to die by it. It also tells us V‘Nishmartem Meod L’Nafshosechem (Devorim – 4:15). We must very much guard our lives.

In my view, circumventing these guidelines undermines this Halacha. Considering how caring, ethical and moral these 2 rabbis are - I’m surprised at the advice given by them.  They seem to be Machimr on Tefila B’Tzibur and Mekil on Pikuach Nefesh. Why?

I hope the concerns I have expressed in this post somehow reaches their ears and they reverse course.