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    Long Overdue Introspection

    Originally published on: April 4, 2020

    This article is dedicated in loving memory of my dear brother-in-law, Rabbi Shalom a”h ben Shmuel halevi Gurewicz, who passed away today, Shabbos Parshas Tzav, 10 Nisan 5780.

    Trigger warning:
    For the past few weeks, I have hesitated to share these thoughts. I feared sounding insensitive to the suffering of our community at this time. However, I feel the sense of urgency to share this vital message now to prevent more loss of life. Too much is at stake. Unfortunately, my message may distress certain well-meaning individuals in the Jewish community who hold “public health policy” to a standard of infallibility. All who are open to objective dialogue are encouraged to read on. Please read until the end before reaching conclusions. This is not about gloom and doom, but shares a message of hope, positivity, and constructive solutions. Also, my intent is not to point the finger at any one individual, but to a communal lapse for which we are all equally responsible. 

      

    With a broken heart I write these words.  Grieving for those who perished.  Praying for those who are stricken.  Distraught over the trauma and uncertainty.

    Judaism behooves us to dig deeper.  This virus is no coincidence.  Cataclysmic collective suffering reveals a dire need for collective introspection.[1]  It’s a spiritual game-changer.  How might we mend our ways and bring healing to our ailing people?

    It’s not just about those who are ailing.  It’s all of us.  Each of us sits isolated in our homes like lepers, excommunicated, banned from shul or any communal prayer.  Schools and yeshivos are shut down.  The Rebbe’s own shul and beis midrash, “770,” is chained up and empty.

    Instead of lamenting our plight, it’s time to be proactive.  “Let us search and examine our ways, and let us return to G-d.[2]

    There is no effect without a cause.  This novel virus and the upheaval that has ensued are truly unprecedented.  It follows that something unprecedented occurred that precipitated such a novel crisis.

    What could it be?

    Evil gossip (lashon hara) has been around since time immemorial.  Other sins too.  If anything, the general trajectory of worldwide Jewish observance has been a positive one.  Has any violation of Torah occurred in the recent past that can be said to be truly unprecedented?

    Our sages taught:

    “If a person sees that suffering has befallen him, he should examine his actions.  If he examined and found no (transgression for which that suffering is appropriate — Rashi), he may attribute his suffering to dereliction in the study of Torah.  “[3]

    So dereliction of Torah study is indeed presumed to be the culprit.  But what type of extraordinary bitul Torah could have possibly resulted in such an extraordinary shutdown of society?

    We need not look too far.

    Alas, this past year has witnessed a grave preponderance of communal Bitul Torah that was truly unparalleled in the annals of Jewish history.  Bitul Torah of the very worst degree.

    One year ago, in the winter of 2019, thousands of Jewish children were summarily banned from school during a measles outbreak.  The reason cited was their lack of immunity to the measles virus.  Public health policy deemed these otherwise healthy children a risk to others, since they can become asymptomatic carries (i.e., contagious before showing symptoms).  Of course, this can occur in any child, but the unvaccinated are presumed to have a higher risk of contracting the virus than their vaccinated peers.

    Sadly, a great many Jewish schools went over and beyond state requirement and expelled unvaccinated students even when there was no outbreak in their local zip code.  In Crown Heights, the Chidon banned children from attending an educational event for which they had prepared for months, even though the Department of Health had not required such action.  Even worse, some of these children were en route from overseas when the Chidon organizers notified parents.  When the children entered the event during davening, they were publicly humiliated and physically ousted from shul.  No one protested this egregious act of public humiliation.

    Furthermore, even after the measles outbreak concluded, many of these children were still not permitted back to school.  Sadly, the rabbinic leadership of New York and elsewhere regarded these families as outliers deserving of marginalization, scorn and derision.  Their children were seen as public dangers unworthy of attending school, camp, or any other public event.  Numerous synagogues adopted abusive policies banning unvaccinated families from attending shul.  Some communities even banned unvaccinated women from using the mikva!

    Then, on the thirteenth of June (6-13, ironically), the NY State legislature passed a draconian law eliminating religious exemption to mandatory vaccine schedule, effectively banning ten thousand Jewish children from ever attending school again in NY.  This drastic move was met with zero resistance on part of the Jewish community.  Nary a protest was heard.  In fact, numerous prominent rabbis praised the bill and had originally petitioned their state assembly to pass it!

    The problem here is obvious.  Halacha does not permit excluding a healthy child from school.  The leading halachic authorities on medical matters in our times[4] ruled conclusively that healthy unvaccinated children may be excluded from school ONLY during an actual outbreak of a deadly disease.  The 2019 measles outbreak was declared over in NY State this past September.

    So, by what right were these children still banned from school in the fall of 2019 and beyond?

    Can it be that this lapse of rabbinic leadership in 2019 laid the groundwork for the feared virus that has been aptly dubbed “COVID-19,” i.e., the “Corona Virus Disease of 2019?”

    Moreover, children were barred from school even if they indeed had immunity to measles, or were vaccinated for it, but were simply missing the mandatory hepatitis-B vaccine, which is an STD, clearly posing no risk for children in orthodox Jewish day schools and yeshivos.  Even those poskim who permitted schools to ban unvaccinated children even when there is no outbreak did so ONLY provided that the community sets up new school(s) to accommodate ALL children, including the unvaccinated[5].

    Alas, no such schools were ever set up anywhere in NY State.  Instead, some parents capitulated and vaccinated under duress, some parents signed their children up for online instruction, while other children just stayed home to roam the streets.

    This dire situation was truly unacceptable.  It was already foreseen by our sages nearly two-thousand years ago.

    Shortly before the destruction of the Second Temple, in the days of Yehoshua ben Gamla[6], our sages enacted a communal obligation on every single Jewish community throughout the world to hire Torah teachers for all children of the city[7].  Any city that did not comply and did not have school-teachers for all its children was to be duly excommunicated until it would comply with our sages’ ordinance[8] since the world only exists in the merit of the breath of the mouths of Jewish school children, a breath that has no sin, etc.[9]

    After learning of this unjust school policy and unjust legislative act that cemented it into law, I spent months sending letters to rabbis of NY demanding that they protest this dire lapse in Torah education.  I published an op-ed in the Jewish Press stating that we are all guilty of cherem until we get these children back into school.

    All my pleas fell on deaf ears.  The state of CA passed a similarly draconian law banning unvaccinated children, and several other states are currently trying to follow suit.  These laws have been largely met with silence on part of the Jewish community.

    This betrayal of Jewish children is shockingly novel and unprecedented.

    Can it be that by banning thousands of healthy Jewish children from school, we have rendered our communities guilty of cherem for being in violation of our sages’ communal obligation? And consequently, the social isolation imposed in response to this novel corona virus is a communal excommunication of sorts?[10]

    Even worse, can it be that by unjustly banning Jewish children from joining their peers in Torah study, we have shaken the very foundations of the entire world? And consequently, the world economy is in collapse and uncertainty has left billions of the world’s inhabitants distraught and panic-stricken?

    Can it be that the elimination of the vital merit upon which the world exists, i.e., the breath from the mouths of Jewish school children, has left us all vulnerable to a disease which threatens to take away our breath?

    We’ve deprived the world of the precious breaths upon which it owes its existence and now people cannot breathe?

    Is it just coincidence that the nation’s hardest-hit hotspot of corona virus cases is the very state in which 10,000 Jewish children were unjustly banned from learning Torah?[11]

    Please don’t counter that these children were still able to learn Torah from home or elsewhere.  Our Sages use the phrase tinokos shel beis rabban—children of their teacher’s house.  Learning at home or online is not called beis rabban.[12]

    There is yet another Talmudic clue into the eerie chain of events.

    Our Sages taught: “Whoever neglects the Torah in wealth will ultimately neglect it in poverty[13].  and if you neglect the Torah, there will be many more causes for neglect before you.  “[14]

    This time last year, we were in a position of ‘wealth.  ‘ There was no state law unjustly banning children from school.  Moreover, we had a relatively benign outbreak of a once-commonplace childhood illness that sickened over 1,200 people in the US, all of whom recovered with no mortality.  Yet we faltered, in panic and dread, and precipitously expelled thousands of healthy children from school.  We never corrected this breach, even after the so-called outbreak was over.  So now we find ourselves in a position of ‘poverty.’  A real outbreak has come our way with dozens of thousands sick and thousands dead.  All of our schools are shut down with no plans of reopening.

    Last year, we neglected the Torah study of ten-thousand children.  Now we are faced with a reality of bitul Torah (albeit justified) of hundreds of thousands of children.

    Where do we go from here? How shall we proceed?

    I have received numerous notices about Sifrei Torah being written, tehillim groups, Moshiach and Geulah study groups, lashon horah groups, etc., all in the hope of averting this dreadful decree.  This is all wonderful, but in my humble opinion, it ignores the elephant in the room.  How can we correct the breach in the Torah study of tinokos shel beis rabban that we inflicted upon ourselves?

    Don’t despair.  There is hope.  Our Sages have an answer for this too.  The previous teaching in Avos addresses it directly:

    “Whoever fulfills the Torah in poverty will ultimately fulfill it in wealth.  “[15]

    Now is the time to rededicate our efforts to fulfill the Torah, even in our present state of poverty.  How can we endeavor to uphold Torah study of all Jewish children even in our present state of social isolation?

    Here some vital steps that can be implemented right away:

    1. Rabbis of NY (and elsewhere) should unanimously declare that every Jewish child deserves an uncompromising Jewish education, irrespective of state vaccine-schedule compliance, finances, or any other halachically-unjust reason to prevent a child from attending Talmud Torah.
    2. Rabbis and headmasters should make public apologies to all children and families whom they hurt with their words and actions.  Especially children who suffered humiliation, scorn, and isolation.
    3. All children in the community should be invited to participate in any zoom classes that schools are currently offering.  They should all be furnished with computers, accoutrements, and online resources that were afforded to their peers.
    4. All NY rabbis shall call their legislators and vehemently protest the state policy that bans unvaccinated children from school in profound violation of our religion.  Furthermore, they shall call upon all adherents and community members to likewise voice their complaints to the legislature.  It is obvious that if the Jewish constituency were solidly opposed to the law, it would be repealed at once.[16]
    5. Community members shall resolve at once that when Hashem has mercy on us and ends this plague, they will not rest until every single child is back in school, or at least that temporary learning programs be put in place for these children who have been wrongly marginalized, until the law is repealed.  These programs shall be supported by the entire community, as required by the original rabbinic decree for the past two millennia.[17]
    6. The entire Jewish community worldwide resolve to never disparage or isolate a family because of their medical choices ever again.
    7. We shall all declare once and for all that we are one inseparable people, mutually responsible for one another.  Most importantly, we share responsibility for all Jewish children everywhere, and especially those in our own communities.

    Last year, during the measles outbreak, no one called for tehillim or prayer groups.  Instead of turning to the Healer of all flesh, Hashem, everyone placed their trust in “Public Health Policy” and its vaccine.  Now, covid-19 leaves us with no doubt Whom to turn to.

    With prayerful wishes for healing and Redemption now,

    Rabbi Michoel Green

    Source: https://westbororabbi.blogspot.com/2020/04/long-overdue-introspection.html


    [1] Rambam, Laws of Fasts 1:2-3.

    [2] Eicha 3:40 נַחְפְּשָׂה דְרָכֵינוּ וְנַחְקֹרָה וְנָשׁוּבָה עַד ה’

    [3] Berachos 5a.

    [4] Rabbi Dr Avraham Steinberg, leading neurologist and ethicist of Shaarei Tzedek Hospital, recently sent me two letters confirming his ruling and rabbinic consensus on this matter.  Letter available upon request.  He also stated clearly that orthodox Jewish children should NOT be required to get the hep-B and HPV vaccines since they are STDs and pose no risk for children.

    [5] Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz, another posek on medical matters, expressed this view to me via email.  Furthermore, he agreed that children may NOT be excluded from school just for not being vaccinated for hep-B, HPV, and chicken pox.

    [6] Bava Basra 21a.  Hilchos Talmud Torah by the Alter Rebbe, 1:3.

    [7] The Alter Rebbe’s wording: “בעד כל תינוקות שבעיר”.

    [8] It should be noted that the Rambam (Hilchos Talmud Torah 2:1) rules that if the city still refuses to hire teachers for all its children, even after being excommunicated, then the city should be destroyed! Jewish people must move away from such a community, which is to be dismantled and abandoned since it would not provide teachers for its children!

    [9] Shabbos 119b.  Alter Rebbe’s Hilchos Talmud Torah Ibid.  See sources cited in the footnotes there.

    [10] The “six-foot rule” is eerily reminiscent of nidui, ostracization (i.e., a lighter form of excommunication than cherem).  No one may sit within four cubits of a menudeh (a person who has been ostracized) except members of his household.  Four cubits is approximately six feet.  [Yoreh Deah 334:2]

    [11] “Corona” means crown.  Tragically, Crown Heights, a community that banned at least 500 children from school this past year happens to be one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods in New York and perhaps in the entire nation.  Metaphorically, the Torah learning of children is the crown of our people.  Have we erred catastrophically by debasing our crown thereby inflicting a corona disease upon our people? On a positive note, this plague seems to only endanger adults.  Children, the most precious members of our community who were innocent all along, seem to be spared from the risks of this disease.  Furthermore, this virus seems to exact a much larger death toll from men than from women.  It must be pointed out that Torah education of children is more obligatory on men than on women.

    Oddly, a common symptom that Crown Heights residents experienced once infected with this corona virus is loss of taste.  Can it be that we have lost our taam (i.e., sense and appreciation) for Torah education, so we became vulnerable to a disease that deprives its victim of the sense of taste?

    Lastly, recent eyewitness accounts revealed that some hospitalized patients suffering with the virus were neglected and provided with no hydration or nutrition.  Some attribute this to antisemitism while others point to overwhelmed and/or inept hospital staff, but this deplorable situation ought to give us all pause.  The Torah is compared to water.  הוי כל צמא לכו למים — O all who thirst, come for water [Is.  55:1, as per Shir Hashirim Rabbah 1:2:8].  The Torah has also been compared to bread and nourishment.  (See Tanya chapter 5, Mishlei 9:5, Rabbeinu Bachaye on Deut.  31:1, and elsewhere).  Can it be that we have unjustly deprived Jewish children of Torah education that is likened to water and food for the soul, and now our loved-ones have been deprived of vital hydration and nutrition and left to die? Hashem yerachem.

    [12] It should be pointed out that when these 10,000 children were banned from school, no one came to their aid to provide resources for them to continue their studies online as was done for all the children in school who were recently sent home as a result of the current corona virus.  No one provided them with laptops and zoom technology to enable them to join their class.  No one seemed to care that these hapless children were forced out of school with no alternatives.

    [13] Avot 4:9.

    [14] Ibid 10.

    [15] Avot 4:9.

    [16] It only passed narrowly by a few votes.

    [17] Bava Basra 21a.  Hilchos Talmud Torah by the Alter Rebbe, 1:3.

    Rabbi Michoel Green
    + posts

    Rabbi Green is a native of California and an accomplished musician and author. He received his rabbinical ordination in Brooklyn after studying in Jerusalem and Sydney, Australia. The Rabbi has spent over eighteen years working in Jewish outreach and education. He has worked in creating successful outreach programs in S. Diego, California and Brisbane, Australia, and founded the first network of Jewish Day Camps in Queensland. He formerly served as Rabbi for the Hebrew Congregation of Green Slopes and the Congregation Chabad of Rancho Bernardo, and has also taught in a wide variety of Jewish day schools— servicing families of all backgrounds and denominations. Michoel Green has authored several prominent books, including "Once upon a Chassid" on Jewish Festivals, (Kehot Publication, 1999).

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