Monday, May 25, 2020

Rabbi Mayer Twersky on Opening Shuls & Camps - The Halacha is Clear & so is Common Sense!

If you're dead, you don't get another chance of getting it right!

With moves towards reopening across the board, it is worth reflecting again (as we did 2.5 months ago) on different views on the relationship between Pikkuach Nefesh, the Jewish respect for life, and opening religious institutions. There is now more information in the public domain, including two instructive pieces by Rav Mayer Twersky’s on the topic. 

To offer a very rudimentary framework for different approaches and attitudes to Pikkuach Nefesh that have been offered in the current crisis:

1. Attitude 1: We should be *less concerned* with the dangers in cases of religious activity. Shuls shouldn’t be closed or should be closed last. Opening Shuls should happen sooner than activities of equivalent danger. [There are different versions of what motivates this view – some see health guidelines as a conspiracy, some focus on Torah’s ability to protect – but the resulting attitude is the same.] This view is stated explicitly by some, and is implicit in the actions of those who only closed when coerced, those who attempt to skirt regulations, and those who lobbied local and national governments to allow them to reopen.

2. Attitude 2: We should be *equally concerned* with the dangers of COVID-19 in the context of Shul as in the context of other activities. There are different renderings of this view, but they often take the view that one is warranted to take minor risks in undertaking activities that are commonly done in society. [This is often based on the idea of Shomer Pesa’im Hashem, and/or that certain risks are below the threshold point that Halakha should be concerned.]

3. Attitude 3: We should be *more concerned* about the dangers of COVID-19 than the rest of the population. The two main proponents of this position are Rav Asher Weiss in Israel (he has called Israel’s Health Ministry “overly lenient” and “an ignoramus”) and Rav Mayer Twersky in the US. Significantly, his recent writing on this topic was endorsed by Rav Herschel Schachter, one of the major decisors for the OU, and has been invoked in communal decisionmaking.

The OU/RCA position itself seems to be somewhere between 2 and 3. It takes extra time beyond government guidelines (at least 14 days) before opening Shuls, and does so only with great care. At the same time, it does not fully endorse Rav Twersky’s note (to be analyzed below) and may ultimately support opening before he is on board.

It is worth reflecting on the basis of Rav Twersky’s reasoning for why we should be *more* concerned about COVID-19 than the rest of the population. Several weeks ago, Rav Twersky publicized a short article entitled “Vachai Bahem,” referring to the commandment that one preserve life, even if it means violating Torah commandments (with three exceptions). Here a basic summary of his view:

- Drawing upon the Rambam (Shabbat 2:3), Rav Twersky argues that in cases of danger it is prohibited to delay carrying out whatever is necessary, even if it violates Shabbos. This concept, based on Vachai Bahem, teaches that “the laws of the Torah in this world are not punitive but are merciful, loving, and peaceful.” Those who call this a violation of the Sabbath are heretics!

- The animating force of that essay is Rav Twersky’s family tradition. He extensively cites his grandfather, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, citing *his* grandfather, Rabbi Chayim Soloveitchik (Grach), in the following story. Grach was sick, a doctor was tending to him on Shabbos; he asked if turning on the light would help and the doctor didn’t give a clear answer. Grach told someone to turn on a light, and when they hesitated Grach berated him, calling him a heretic for not sufficiently considering risk to life!

- Building upon this, Rav Twersky decries the view that does not sufficiently take into account the Torah’s great regard for human life. He notes that although it is not his place to speak up among those greater than him, in a case of Chilul Hashem (desecration of God’s name) the usual rules of deference are not regarded. Those who didn’t close their institutions once there was danger not only endangered their followers but also desecrated God’s name. In addition, he confesses on behalf of some of his fellow rabbis, “even when we responded to directives to cancel gatherings, we tied our following these instructions to external factors [i.e. government directive] and not for the Torah’s concern for Vachai Bahem [human life].”

- He concludes that letter by saying that “It is our double obligation to correct as much as possible the past and to teach as to the truth of Torah going forward.”

This past Thursday, Rav Twersky authored another letter, relating to the current situation and the prospect of reopening. In short, he strongly cautioned against reopening at this point, offering several reasons.

- He opens with a wide-ranging ruling, that “holding Minyan outside, or inside in places where that is permitted… and opening Battei Midrash, Yeshivas, and (lehavdil) camps… are all absolutely prohibited right now,” due to the danger. Rav Twersky note that this is all based on logic, but he also provides halakhic sources, although they shouldn’t be necessary. 

- Given the nature of the disease, one must think not only about the danger to individuals, but the danger to the community as a whole. Since opening Minyanim will lead to some getting sick, it is prohibited, since it is at least a Sefeik Sefeika of Sakkanah, a remote possibility of danger.

- We follow expert medical advice, and particularly the opinion of experts, particularly for views on which they are certain, not their best estimations. Even those providing ways to return to Shul do not think this activity is risk-free, or else they wouldn’t exclude the elderly. Doctors should be trusted to advise as to what risk certain activities yield, but NOT what constitutes an “acceptable risk” – that is a Halakhic determination.

- Some Jewishly observant doctors think that Minyan is essential and thus the question is not *whether* to hold Minyan, but *how* to hold Minyan. They think: How can Shul be closed for so long? This leads them to express medical positions that assume incorrect views of what is an acceptable danger and which should be disregarded.

- Government guidance aims to limit the spread of the disease, but does not aspire to zero risk. Therefore *lenient* governmental guidance should not be followed and has no weight in these decisions. If anything, permissive governmental guidance is a reason for Shuls to be more stringent, since it will lead to increased gatherings and thus increased risk.

- Some have suggested that, since some will not follow a directive to remain closed, that we should advise them as to how to open up most safely. This is incorrect; such guidance will only strengthen their hand.

- Rabbinic permissive views are all based in error – they either lack the requisite medical knowledge, don’t appreciate the ramifications of their actions, errantly think they can rely on government rulings, don’t fully appreciate the halakhic value of Vachaai Bahem, or overestimate the value of Tefillah Bitzibur (public prayer). Since these views are based in error, they should not be taken into consideration at all.

- Some might ask: how can everything be opening us around us – stores, the beach, etc., while Shuls and Batei Midrash remain closed? The response to this is Anu Ratzim Vihem Ratzim – we don’t take guidance from these dangerous positions but follow the Torah-true view on avoiding danger. We thus avoid going outside in all of these cases (with possible exceptions for safe public walks, and the separate discussion of making a living).

- How long does this go? We need to wait until there is more medical *certainty* around how to avoid the disease. We should not rush to come back, and we have not yet reached the point where medical knowledge allows for avoiding danger with certainty. Rav Twersky closes with: “It is possible to wait for these things [prayer in synagogues, etc.] but it is impossible to return a Jewish life to the world.”

Rav Twersky offers a very powerful statement, and one that reflects, at least in part, the view that Shuls should be opened later than governmental and even public health guidance allows for. Time will tell the extent to which it is followed, but it is the most extensive (and extreme) presentation of that view.

May we all merit to see the day when it is safe enough that all rabbis will be encouraging Shul attendance, as in days of yore!

Mayer E. Twersky (born October 17, 1960) is an Orthodox rabbi and one of the roshei yeshiva at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) of Yeshiva University.  Twersky currently holds the position of Grand Rabbi of the Talne hasidim.  Twersky is currently on the board of TorahWeb,[7] which frequently publishes short English articles of his.