By Betzalel Fischman
As I am rushing to finish my Shabbat preparations, I hear a ping from my phone. Not atypically, a dear friend, a fellow recent graduate of YU, has sent a news tidbit from our alma mater to a group of myself and four friends. More atypically, it got my attention. It was a blurb describing a new course for the soon-arriving June Summer Session, JST 2430 Responses to COVID-19 in Jewish Ritual and Theology. I’d like to describe apprehensions regarding the existence of the course and a word of hesitation for students considering registering for it.
Most simply, I question the ability of the course to properly analyze its subject. The issue calls to mind a teaching of Rav Soloveitchik retold by Rav Schachter shlita (may he live a good long life) and others. “[Tractate Shabbat 21b] states (in the context of Chanukah), ‘The following year, they established them and made them yamim tovim [holidays] with Hallel [praise] and thanksgiving.’ Meaning, sometimes, only after a year or two has passed are we able to properly understand historical events with the right perspective, and to, therefore, establish a yom tov, ” (Nefesh HaRav 94, my translation)*.
While the course is not looking to establish a religious holiday for an event worth celebrating, the principle remains relevant that understanding and appreciating historical events requires the hindsight and contemplation that the passage of time provides. This course does not even aim to analyze the impact of the event; it aims to analyze responses to it. It is not taking place soon after the event; it occurs during it — if not at its peak, while its presence still significantly impacts life (no less immediately than the total absence of in-person classes). The students and instructor participating in this course will attempt to examine “a variety of responses offered by the Jewish community to COVID-19 in the realms of both ritual and theology” and “analyze the relevant controversy or diversity of opinion on the issue” as they are happening and without the empirical results of their impacts. While in these realms it’s always difficult to analyze cause and effect, it is impossible to do so properly without access to long-term results.
Additionally, even if the course can successfully understand its issues (“a sage is greater than a prophet,” Tractate Bava Batra 12a), it is inappropriate. Objectivity characterises academic study. As the term implies, objectivity places the studier outside the subject matter. He surveys it from a removed, impartial position, unaffected and not personally invested in the object of his study. (Parenthetically, this characteristic provides many, including Rav Lichtenstein z”l (may his memory be a blessing), with apprehension about academic Jewish studies in general.) As the term is sometimes used (‘purely academic,’ for example), it is a flaw in academic study if it has practical import.
A sensitive person cannot take this approach or have this attitude in the throes of the event. As people are suffering financially, emotionally, and physically, one who personifies the values of “sharing his fellow’s burden” (to quote the seasonal Ethics of our Fathers [6:6]), cannot look down on the situation from an ivory tower to survey, examine, and analyze. While even years later it is difficult, one might find it necessary because of the insights he can reap. At this time, this course is a disservice to the subject matter and to the integrity of the academy.
It should be emphasized that this endeavor is different in function and mode than rabbinic and scientific leaders addressing the issues with halachic (Jewish Law) rulings, inspiration, perspective, policy, and information. They are following King David’s model, metaphorically soiling their hands “with blood [of menstruation], and with the foetus and the placenta,” (Tractate Berachot 4a), to address the issues. They are providing the public with crucial information, setting policy, treating patients, researching cures, answering new halachic questions, and uplifting the low-spirited. They are doing all this with great stress and sacrifice.
The impulse to be involved in the most current issue is understandable. Our social media era values speed of reaction and the attention that comes with that. The time taken for proper contemplation renders one’s thoughts irrelevant in a rapid news cycle. However, this attitude is the greatest enemy of rigor, sensitivity, and nuance. The Rav explains, in the context of precision and lack of superfluousness in speech, “Cognitive Man gives priority to thought over speech, reason over expression. He is not a man of tropes or many idioms… Thought exceeds speech, idea exceeds language… The thought is ripened and completed, and afterwards speech comes,” (‘Ish HaHalakha’ in B’Sod HaYachid Ve’HaYachad, 134-135, my translation).
I encourage the student to take a different course. For the moment, learn about the pandemic and how you should behave, learn the halachot of new situations, find hashkafic (philosophical) guides for your perspectives, and most importantly, be there for those who need your support. May it pass quickly, and may God wipe the tears from the faces of all those who have suffered. Let that day come soon, so we can look back, after we have recovered physically and emotionally, and analyze, appreciate, and understand the events that took place.
*Rav Schachter reports the Rav saying this, in the mid-50s, in the context of discussing celebration practices for Yom Ha’atzmaut. While I am not equipped to comment on or judge the various practical approaches Gedolim (sages) took to the matter, seeing all the instabilities and questions Israel faces on many planes 70+ years into its existence confirms the wisdom of the Rav’s general principle.