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; has allowed large religious gatherings and funerals to take place; and has put their 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 rejecting the State of Israel, the Israeli authorities, and the knowledge of the medical profession. But rather, that they relate to some deep-seated religious beliefs, which affect 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 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 and ideological mistake, which has caused so much animosity and 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 and that, at first sight, seems very Jewish.
However, it is not. And in fact, it is as un-Jewish as can be.
It is a typical example of how, through the back door, probably because of the Exile experience, Christian ideas infiltrated several dimensions of Chareidi Judaism. This may even be true about 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 (1) and the question of whether, at the time of birth, one should save the baby, or the mother, when both cannot be saved (a frequent scenario in the olden days). Classical Christianity teaches that one 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. It considers this not just a fundamental mistake but sacrilege of the first order.
According to Judaism, a person must save their body before anything else! “To live” is more important than “to be saved.”
The idea that under all circumstances a person needs “to save their soul” – meaning that once they are forced to violate the commandments and are coerced to drop a religious lifestyle, they need to sacrifice their life – is as un-Jewish as can be.
The argument that if a person doesn’t live a religious life of shemirat hamitzvot (observance of the commandments), their soul is contaminated and they won’t inherit Olam Haba (the world to come) after they die is totally unacceptable.
The claim that a person has wasted their life in this world and has forgone the world to come if they have not fulfilled the commandments under all circumstances is, in the eyes of Judaism, a misguided idea.
It is only after a person has secured their physical life that they are obligated to observe the commandments, and it is only then that they have lost out on “real” life if they did not observe them.
This doesn’t mean that a person should violate the commandments so as to live a comfortable life. It just means that they must make sure that they can live a simple life that allows them to breathe and to ensure that they don’t become deathly ill, or completely unable to live a “human” life (2).
Why? Because nothing is more holy than life itself. Not even the divinely given commandments! This means that making sure that one stays 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 commandment is “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. When one is forced to kill an innocent person so as to save one’s own life; when one is forced to have intercourse with somebody with whom they, by biblical law, are not allowed to have relations; and when one is forced to serve idols (Yoma 82a).
This also applies in case of shmad, (religious persecution), when the Jewish community is forced to be baptized, or compelled by the enemy to violate the Torah for the sake of violation (Sanhedrin 64a).
It is important to remember that one is allowed to take a certain reasonable risk – such as driving a car, flying a plane, crossing the street, or similar matters – as long as the chances of being killed are minimal and “many have trodden there.” Otherwise, life would become totally impossible (Shabbat 129b, based on Tehillim 116:6).
For the same reason, one is allowed to try and save somebody’s life only when it is reasonably certain that oneself will remain alive (3). Or, when one needs to defend one’s country and its population, since this means saving the lives of many.
In all other cases, whether positive commandments, or prohibitions, one is not allowed to put oneself in mortal danger to observe the commandments. On the contrary, one is obligated to violate all these commandments. And therein lies the rub.
When it insists that yeshivot and chadarim stay open and large religious gatherings be permitted, etc, that part of the Chareidi world argues that if these would be forbidden, 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, stop observing the commandments and thereby forgo their lives in this world and the future world.
They seem to argue that saving one’s soul is the primary value, and if that means that 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 Christianity at its best. And it is as anti-Jewish as can be.
What those in the Chareidi community who believe this do not seem to realize is that by doing so, they have abandoned one of the most crucial tenets of Judaism: the absolute commandment to stay alive: With the few exceptions mentioned above, it will always have priority.
It’s one thing if the average Chareidi person may not realize this, but that some of their leaders fell for this Christian idea is beyond comprehension. It seems that they never grasped one of the major tenets of religious Judaism.
What Judaism is teaching is something extremely astonishing: Not only does it demand that a Jew not observe the mitzvot when they are in danger of death on a single occasion, but if they are continuously in danger of death, they must violate all the commandments throughout their life, 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 to keep kosher or observe Shabbat, etc, if this would constantly lead to 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 one is forced to choose between life and the commandments, one 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 one’s Jewishness is to live. No commandment, or combination of them, will ever be able to compete with this mitzvah!
What one obviously needs to ask is: Why? Why is life so important that everything else has to give way, even when something is as important as the very essence of their existence, their Jewishness and Judaism?
Does Christianity not make more sense when it claims that one should always save their soul? What, after all, is the meaning of one’s 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 one stays 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 gone a different way is, it seems, because it considers life more of an obstacle then a virtue. This is probably a result of Plato’s influence. He 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 only grow through bodily actions of virtue. 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 in the worldly. 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, 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 only save the soul after the body is secured. 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 of a section of the Chareidi community that it violates this principle and has adopted a Christian idea.
The Misguided Illusion of Talmud Torah
Sure, there are other important issues at play, 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 all other endeavors – such as the functioning and upkeep of society: the running of the Jewish State, commerce, agriculture, and more – are of much less importance compared to the study of Torah.
This idea, however, is entirely wrong. 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. But that’s not the case.
The meaning of this statement is figurative. Without learning Torah, one would not know how to fulfill the commandments and transform oneself into a more sublime and moral person; to know how to run society, how to work the land, how to do business, and how to deal with one’s fellow human beings.
All the commandments depend on learning Torah. Without that knowledge, one wouldn’t know how to observe the commandments. But it never meant that one needs to give up one’s life for learning Torah. In fact, it is forbidden. Sure, learning Torah is considered to be one of the most virtuous mitzvot and, no doubt, a goal in itself and a form of Divine worship. But it’s never one that is seen as more important than the other mitzvot. All one can argue is that without constant study of the Torah the Jewish people would probably not have survived. It 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 succumb, 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 a mistaken belief about learning Torah.
Their leadership should return to the Jewish fold and authentic Judaism, and should guide their followers to do the same.
With thanks to Channa Shapiro for her editorial comments.
(1.) 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).
(2.) 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.
(3.) 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.
This publication was made possible with the support of the Louis and Dina Van de Kamp Foundation, August 2020.