In memory of
Hadassa (Evalina) Lindeman a”h
Beth Juliana, Israel
Many people have asked me to explain why part of the Chareidi community has not been listening to the authorities and has refused to close their yeshivot, schools, and chadarim; why they have allowed large religious gatherings and funerals to take place; and why they have put their own members and others in mortal danger.
While restrictions have now eased up a little, I still think it is important to look into this issue, because I believe it all goes much deeper than just the Corona pandemic, and there is little doubt that unless we deal with it seriously, we will encounter this phenomenon again in the future.
I believe that all these worrisome developments are not just the result of Orthodox politics, or of rejection of the State of Israel, the Israeli authorities, and the knowledge of the medical profession. Rather, this behavior stems from deep-seated religious beliefs, which impact the very foundations of Judaism and human existence.
And it is in these beliefs that segments of the Chareidi world make a fundamental mistake regarding one of the most basic teachings of Judaism.
I want to emphasize once again that this is true of only part of the Chareidi community. But it is a very vocal part, and it does intolerable damage to Judaism and our fellow Jews and gentiles.
While it is known that I do not agree with various aspects of the Chareidi outlook, I still respect this world very much for its passion and its many wonderful characteristics. And it is exactly because of this that I hope that by writing this essay I am making a small contribution toward helping the Chareidi community to rectify a crucial ideological mistake, which has caused so much animosity and has brought Chareidi Judaism into disrepute.
My explanation will not answer all the questions that many of us ask concerning Chareidi behavior, but I think it is fundamental that people understand the Chareidi way of thinking, why some of its ideologies are wrong, and what can be done about it.
It seems to me that part of the Charedi community has adopted an idea that is totally foreign to Judaism but is, strangely enough, fundamental to Christianity. This is an idea that, at first sight at least, seems very Jewish.
However, it is not; in fact, it is as un-Jewish an idea as can be.
This is a typical example of how—probably because of the experience of exile—Christian ideas have infiltrated several dimensions of Chareidi Judaism through the back door. This may be true even of other segments of religious Judaism that are not at all Chareidi.
Saving One’s Soul
Classical Christianity teaches that under all circumstances one must “save one’s soul.” This means that everything must be sacrificed for the sake of the salvation of one’s soul. The reason is clear: only in that way is one able to enter Heaven. This is very well expressed through the concept of baptism and the question of whether, at the time of birth, we should save the baby or the mother, when both cannot be saved (a frequent scenario in the old days). Classical Christianity teaches that we would have to save the baby, since its soul cannot enter Paradise without being baptized. The mother, on the other hand, has already been baptized and has nothing to worry about when she dies. In other words, the salvation of the soul (through baptism) always has priority.
And it is exactly against this point of view that the Jewish Tradition adamantly protests. Judaism considers this idea not just a fundamental mistake but sacrilege of the first order.
According to Judaism, we must save our bodies before anything else! “To live” is more important than “to be saved.”
The idea that under all circumstances we must “save our souls”—meaning that when forced to violate the commandments or coerced to drop a religious lifestyle, we must sacrifice our lives—is as un-Jewish as can be.
The argument that if we don’t live a religious life of shemirat hamitzvot (observance of the commandments), our souls are contaminated, and we won’t inherit Olam Haba (the World to Come) after we die is totally unacceptable to Jewish thought.
The claim that we have wasted our lives in this world and have forgone the World to Come if we have not fulfilled the commandments under all circumstances is, in the eyes of Judaism, a misguided notion.
It is only after we have secured our physical existence that we are obligated to observe the commandments, and it is only then that we have lost out on “real” life if we did not observe them.
This doesn’t mean that we should violate the commandments so as to live a comfortable life. It just means that we must make sure that we can at least live a simple life that allows us to breathe; that we don’t become deathly ill or completely unable to live a “human” life.
Why? Because nothing is holier than life itself; not even the divinely-given commandments! This means that making sure that we stay alive is more important than the observance of all the mitzvot combined. Compared to life itself, they are all secondary.
To Live Is the Greatest Mitzvah of All
To put it differently: The most important biblical commandments are “U’vacharta ba’chayim”—“And you shall choose life” (Devarim 30:19) and “V’chai bahem, v’lo she’yamut bahem” — “And you shall live by them (the mitzvot) and not die because of them” (Vayikra 18:5; Yoma 85b).
Only three prohibitions override this obligation to preserve life: When one is forced to kill an innocent person in order to save one’s own life; when one is forced to have sexual intercourse with somebody with whom they, by biblical law, are not allowed to have relations; and when one is forced to worship idols (Yoma 82a). Only in these three cases are we commanded to die rather than transgress.
This is true also in a situation of shmad, (religious persecution), when the Jewish community as a whole is forced to be baptized, or compelled by an enemy to violate the Torah merely for the sake of violation (Sanhedrin 64a). In such cases of religious persecution, we are commanded to give up our lives rather than violate even the smallest commandment.
But these are singular cases!
It is important to remember that we are allowed to take certain reasonable risks—such as driving a car, flying in a plane, crossing the street, or similar things—as long as the chances of being killed are minimal and, in the words of the Talmud, “many have trodden there.” Otherwise, life would become totally impossible (Shabbat 129b, based on Tehillim 116:6).
For the same reason, we are allowed to try to save somebody else’s life only when it is reasonably certain that we ourselves will remain alive. We are also allowed to put our lives at risk when we need to defend our country and its population, since this means saving the lives of many.
In all other cases, whether of positive commandments or prohibitions, we are not allowed to put ourselves in mortal danger to observe the commandments. On the contrary, we are obligated to violate all these commandments.
And therein lies the rub.
When part of the Chareidi world insists that yeshivot and chadarim stay open and large religious gatherings be permitted, etc., that part of the Chareidi world argues that without these things the religious community would be unable to function properly and would fall apart. The social pressure required to keep these communities intact would no longer be there, and many young and not-so-young people would leave the fold, would cease observing the commandments, and would thereby forgo their lives in this world and the World to Come.
These people seem to argue that saving one’s soul is the primary value, and if that means that some people will definitely die—as in the case of Coronavirus—then this is preferred, since the people who died will at least not have violated the Torah and will consequently inherit the World to Come.
This idea, however, is quintessentially Christian, and as anti-Jewish as can be.
What those in the Chareidi community who believe this do not seem to realize is that they have abandoned one of the most crucial tenets of Judaism: the absolute commandment to preserve life. With the few exceptions mentioned above, preservation of life always has priority.
It’s one thing if the average Chareidi person may not realize this, but that some of their leaders have fallen for this Christian notion is beyond comprehension. It seems that they never grasped one of the major tenets of religious Judaism.
What Judaism teaches is actually something astonishing: Not only does Jewish law demand that a Jew not observe the mitzvot when they are in danger of death on a single occasion, but that if they are continuously in danger of death, they must violate all the commandments throughout their lives, if that is the only way to prevent this danger! While such a situation is highly unlikely, theoretically this could mean that one would never be allowed by Jewish Law to keep kosher or observe Shabbat, etc., if by doing so one would constantly be in danger of death. One would have to violate all the commandments for all the years one lives (till 120)!!
In other words, life itself is so important that when we are forced to choose between life and the commandments, we must choose life, even when that life has no Jewish (ritual) context whatsoever.
In the eyes of Judaism, this is obvious. The greatest expression of commitment to our Jewishness is to live. No commandment, or combination of commandments, will ever be able to compete with this mitzvah!
What we obviously need to ask is: Why? Why is life so important that everything else has to give way, even something as important as the very essence of our identity—our Jewishness and Judaism?
Does Christianity not make more sense when it claims that we should always save our souls before the body? What, after all, is the meaning of life if not to serve God? What is the point of saving one’s body?
Apparently, Judaism maintains that the greatest service to God is ensuring that we stay alive. There is something about life that is untouchable. Life is a “substance” that cannot be measured, is beyond all definition, and is totally out of the range of what human beings can ever understand, or even grasp. Life is holier than anything else.
That Christianity has taken a different path would seem to be because it considers life more of an obstacle then a virtue. This belief likely owes much to the influence of Plato, who considers the soul to be imprisoned by the body, from which it needs to liberate itself. The body is a hindrance.
Judaism, however, sees the body as a highly important helpmate in the growth of the soul. The soul can grow only through virtuous bodily actions. God created the body not to frustrate the soul but to help it. Otherwise, why have a body? Without the body, the soul has no value, because it can’t accomplish anything without it.
For Judaism, God is to be found within the mundane—in holy deeds. Judaism is, as Abraham Joshua Heschel states, “the theology of the common deed” (The Insecurity of Freedom, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1955, pp. 102-3). God is concerned with everydayness, with the trivialities of life, which can be raised to high levels without ever leaving the common ground. It is not concerned with the mysteries of heaven, but with the blights of society and the affairs of the marketplace. It is there that we find God. “In doing the finite we are able to perceive the infinite” (Man Is Not Alone, p. 265).
It is for this reason that the need to keep the body alive will always be more important than the need to save the soul. One can save the soul only after the body is secure. Put differently: saving the body is the highest expression of saving one’s soul.
This is one of the fundamental differences between Judaism and classical Christianity.
It is one of the great tragedies that a sector of the Chareidi community violates this principle and has adopted a Christian idea.
The Misguided Notion of Talmud Torah
To be sure, there are other important issues at play in explaining why the Chareidi community reacts the way it does.
One of these issues is the belief that “Talmud Torah”—learning Torah—is the ultimate goal of every Jew, and that all other endeavors—such as the functioning and upkeep of society, the running of the Jewish State, its commerce, its agriculture, and more—are of much less importance compared to the study of Torah.
This idea, however, is entirely wrong. This view of Talmud Torah is akin to idol worship. The often-quoted rabbinic statement “V’talmud Torah k’negged kulam”—the study of Torah is equivalent to all the commandments (Shabbat 127a)—does not mean that Torah learning is the ultimate objective of Judaism. If that were the case, it would belong to the category of the few mitzvot we mentioned above, for which one has to give up one’s life rather than transgress. But that’s not the case.
The meaning of this statement is figurative. Without learning Torah, we would not know how to fulfill the commandments and transform ourselves into more sublime and moral people; we would not know how to run a just society, how to work the land, how to do business, and how to deal with our fellow human beings.
All the commandments depend on learning Torah. Without that knowledge, one wouldn’t know how to observe the commandments. But this has never meant that we need to give up our lives for learning Torah. In fact, doing so is forbidden! Sure, learning Torah is considered to be one of the most virtuous mitzvot and is no doubt a goal in itself and a form of Divine worship. But it’s never seen as more important than the other mitzvot. All we can argue is that without constant study of the Torah the Jewish people as a whole would probably not have survived. Torah is its life blood. But still, it’s not as holy as life itself.
The confusion concerning this matter within a part of Chareidi society is one of the great tragedies in modern Jewish life. The belief that learning Torah is the ultimate goal, to which all of life should be subordinated, is a false and dangerous one.
We can only pray that the Chareidi leadership will realize this and move its followers away from this Christian idea concerning saving one’s soul and the concomitant mistaken belief about learning Torah. Their leadership should return to the Jewish fold and to authentic Judaism, and should guide their followers to do the same.
With thanks to Channa Shapiro and Yael Shahar for their editorial comments.
 There are many interpretations of what Baptism is. The most common is given by Martin Luther: To put it most simply, the power, effect, benefit, fruit, and purpose of Baptism is to save. No one is baptized in order to become a prince, but, as the words say, to “be saved.” To be saved, we know, is nothing else than to be delivered from sin, death, and the devil and to enter into the kingdom (of Jesus) and live with him forever (Large Catechism, 1529).
 This may mean that even when a person stays biologically alive but will be deprived of all the conditions that make life possible on the most basic level, they need to violate the commandments. See the writings of the “Dor Revi’i,” the Gaon Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Glasner, Chief Rabbi of Klausenburg, Hungary, from 1877-1923.
 Whether one is allowed to voluntarily give up one’s life in order to save the life of another is a matter of debate. See Shevet M’Yehudah by former Chief Rabbi of Israel Isser Yehudah Unterman z”l (1886-1976), Chapters One and Two, Mosad Harav Kook, Jerusalem, 1983. See, also, Josephus, Antiquities of The Jews, book 18, chapter 8, mentioned in Milton Konvitz’s “Conscience and Civil Disobedience in the Jewish Tradition” in Contemporary Jewish Ethics, ed. Menachem Kellner, NY, Sanhedrin Press, 1978, p. 242-243. As far as I know, and interestingly enough, the story of the martyrs of Masada, who killed themselves rather than being taken captive by the Romans, is not mentioned in classical rabbinical literature. It is known that halachic authorities were ambivalent about the collective suicide of Jews during the Crusades. It may be that these Jews decided to take their lives and those of their loved-ones because they were afraid that they would be forced into idol worship, religious persecution, baptism, or sexual abuse.
Josh S says
There’s a quantitative piece here.
Would the success in countering flu (which kills many each year) be a reason to replicate these restrictions each winter? Most people would say the impact on our every day life (and Talmud Torah etc) makes that too much.
Or does that become more akin to crossing the road? Where does one become the other?
R. Shuchat says
This is a good analysis. However, it fits the present situation but does not deal the the fact the Judaism does not put life above all in any situation. We have the three cardinal sins of Gilui arayot, shfichut damim and avodah zarah in which the Jewish tradition sees so point to live if one is forced to do these things. This issue must be addressed as well . In addition in the mitzva of defending ones country one puts their life down in order to save the multitude. This is discussed by the minchat chinuch in the mitzva of milchemet mitzva.
The article did mentioned this three cases as the exception to the rule, and even suggested that the very fact that Talmud Torah it’s not one of these three cardinal transgressions, probes the point that the current approach of the Charedim vis a vis Talmud Torah and social distance it’s problematic !!