Do not be exceedingly righteous

When we rebel against rules on opening yeshivas during the pandemic, we insinuate that ours is a religion callous to medical dangers.

Rabbi Mayer Twersky ,

Rabbi Mayer Twersky
Rabbi Mayer Twersky
Courtesy

Do Not Be Exceedingly Righteous[1]

I

For the past months within several of our communities we have been confronted by a strange, dissonant reality.

  • On the one hand, we are scrupulously observant, and yet, on the other hand, shockingly contemptuous of the cardinal מצוה to safeguard life (ונשמרתם מאד לנפשותיכם).
  • As multifariously evidenced both on a collective, communal level as well as a personal, individual level, we are extraordinarily kind and compassionate. And yet, we have been acting with extreme cruelty in transmitting a potentially lethal virus to each other with predictably catastrophic consequences.
  • We are committed to protecting the honor of Heaven (כבוד שמים) and yet, time and time again, our contempt for public health measures has greatly profaned the honor of Heaven (חלול השם).

Who would have thought that such a contradiction fraught scenario could possibly exist? And yet, indisputably, this scenario prevails in several of our communities.

II

Let us present and reflect upon one cause (inter alia) of this dissonant reality. (Human behavior, like humans themselves, is complex, and we ought to steer clear of reductionism.) "Human nature is such... that a person emulates his fellow citizens" (Rambam, Hilchos De'os 6:1).

"It is prohibited to adopt gentile practices or emulate their ways... Rather a Jew should stand apart from them, distinguished in his dress and conduct, just as he stands apart in his knowledge and character, as the Torah states, 'I have set you apart from the nations'" (ibid. Hilchos Avoda Zara 11:1).

Throughout the millennia we have made a consistent, concerted effort to overcome susceptibility to negative influences, thereby retaining our singular identity and remaining a distinct, unique people. In recent decades, however, in several of our communities we have adopted a greatly exaggerated stance. A Weltanschauung has emerged and crystalized which indiscriminately rejects and contemptuously dismisses the outside world in toto. Our motivation is noble, but our actions are decidedly ignoble. This extreme Weltanschauung with its intellectual xenophobia embellishes the Torah's imperative of separateness. In embellishing, we diminish, undermine, and imperil (כל המוסיף גורע).

Contempt and hatred inevitably result in extreme, anomalous behavior (שנאה מקלקלת את השורה; Rashi, Bamidbar 22:21, Sanhedrin 105b). The painful, sacrilegious, dissonant reality we have experienced these past months results from entrenched, indiscriminate contempt and blind, self-destructive hatred.

As previously discussed, there is vital need for discriminating, targeted rejection of outside intellectual and cultural currents. Undoubtedly, most of contemporary society's intellectual and cultural output is anathema and, as such, must be blocked and rejected. Additionally, there is room for legitimate difference of opinion regarding a small percentage of society's intellectual output.

But there is equally vital, halakhic need to "accept truth from whomever speaks it" (Rambam, introduction to Eight Chapters). Rejection of societal culture must be discriminating because Halakhah is discriminating; while it unequivocally rejects that which is antithetical, it unabashedly welcomes, even seeks, certain elements of wisdom, חכמה, even when they emanate from the outside world.

Case in point: Halakhah recognizes, respects and relies upon medical knowledge and opinion from the outside world. (See Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 618:1.)

And yet, in clear, indefensible violation of Halakhah, we have (in several of our communities) throughout the pandemic ignored and rejected medical science, its warnings and protocols. In so doing we have acted against our own halakhic principles; cruelly inflicted suffering and death upon ourselves; and betrayed our most sacred trust of honoring Heaven, כבוד שמים.

This profoundly anomalous, self-contradictory, self-destructive behavior has resulted from the toxic hatred and exaggerated, indiscriminate contempt for the outside world.

An even more pronounced form of the self-contradiction has been rejecting medical knowledge even when shared by Torah observant medical health professionals who otherwise are highly respected within our communities. All this rejection and negativity despite the fact that we ourselves, in other medical contexts, seek the best medical treatment available. Apparently, when the initiative is ours, we embrace medical knowledge from the outside world. But when we perceive the initiative as coming from the outside, our visceral contempt self-destructively prevails.

Plagued by a mindset of contempt and suspicion, we also become especially susceptible to misinformation, deception and falsehood cynically propagated to contradict and erode confidence in medical knowledge and guidelines. Our association with such primitivity and perversion adds yet another dimension to the terrible desecration of G-d's Name, חלול השם. In this context we are unavoidably reminded of the measles outbreak within small segments of some of our communities due to lack of vaccination.

III

Currently, within our aforementioned communities, there are calls for compliance with public health protocols and guidelines. And yet the distortion of Torah תורה and desecration of G-d's Name, חלול השם, continue unabated. The reason being, that we do not attribute the need for compliance with the Torah's zealous, proactive, preventive protection of life. Instead, we attribute the need to comply with our desire to have Yeshivos re-open or remain open.

We thus outrageously insinuate that ours is a callous religion r"l exclusively devoted to study, cruelly and irresponsibly impervious to loss of life.

Other voices within our communities cite the second wave as a reason for compliance, as though Halakhah only reacts to loss of life ex post facto. Our stubborn, ongoing distortion of Torah תורה is staggering and frightening.

How long will we distort Torah? And how long will we continue to be desecrate G-d's Name, מחלל שם שמים?

IV

The ongoing distortion demand from us wide-ranging, incisive introspection. The following thought, briefly presented, constitutes, at best, a partial beginning of this crucial process.

The pandemic has not created deficiencies or deficits within our Weltanschauung. It has "only" highlighted pre-existing flaws and exposed their depth. (Thus, for example, we ought to recognize that the imbalance and disproportionality of our approach express themselves in other, non-medical, fundamental forms and contexts.) Accordingly, the end of the pandemic, for which we pray, will not cure these (or other) core religious-spiritual ills.

A religious-philosophical system which distorts Torah תורה and causes continuous desecrate G-d's Name ,חלול השם, is fundamentally flawed; it can neither guide us in our lives nor provide an educational framework for our children. Fundamental change and correction are required as part of repentance, תשובה. The task is most formidable, but not too formidable given the devotion and dedication which characterize our communities.

Let us search our ways, and investigate; and return to Hashem" (Eicha 3:40).

[1] Koheles 7:16. An adapted, English version of אל תהי צדיק הרבה, published 7 Cheshvan 5781/25 October 2020.

Mayer E. Twersky is one of the roshei yeshiva at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) of Yeshiva University.

Posted on Torah Web, reposted with permission..



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