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Covid-19, the Moshiach and Judging Others Favorably

 Blog #1:

If you open up the paper today, you may find that Haredi Jews, despite making up a very small percentage of the world population, are getting a lot of air time. Increased rates of COVID-19 infections in these communities have brought on press coverage claiming that its members are flouting government regulations and social distancing rules. In the following article, "How Coronavirus Sparked an Open Season of Hate for Haredi Jews," Rabbi Avi Shafran explains the accusations against Haredim and gives us a glimpse of their perspective:

When higher rates of coronavirus infection and morbidity in Haredi towns and neighborhoods were first reported, many of us Haredim knew what was coming. 

When the bubonic plague ravaged Europe in the 1300s, identifiable Jews were seen as less likely to contract the infection – and may well have been, due to their frequent, religiously mandated hand washing.  The larger populace, though, concluded that the Jews were poisoning Christian drinking wells. Then came a wave of brutal torture, forced confessions and massacres that decimated entire Jewish communities.

Ironically, today, Haredim have been particularly hard-hit by the coronavirus pandemic, and are being blamed once again. Not, this time, for causing the contemporary plague (though there’s been that too, on social media and in public confrontations; Jew-hatred knows no logic). 

Now the charges against religious Jews are about different alleged crimes: not acting quickly enough to close schools and shuls, disdaining medical knowledge and advice; and blindly following leaders who cannot be trusted to make proper choices.

And so dawned, as we expected, a new open season on Haredim.  

Yes, some Haredi communities did not recognize the virus’s virality as quickly as they now wish they had. But shuls and yeshivot occupy a singular place in such communities, and their shuttering was traumatic.

And hindsight, famously, is flawless. Many other parts of society – including partygoers, sunbathers on the beach and political leaders – at first discounted the degree of threat the virus posed, some well beyond the point when Bnei Brak and Brooklyn had embraced all the necessary precautions.

There were indeed Haredim who flouted proper health authority rules. But for every Bnei Brak or Brooklyn funeral that drew a crowd of distraught mourners there were scores of final farewells in the same and other Haredi communities, including that of the Novominsker Rebbe, that took place with only a handful of family members present, and well distanced from one another.

Judging an entire population on the basis of recalcitrant outliers is the essence of bigotry.

As to disdain for medical knowledge or guidance, there are few groups more respectful of medicine or more dedicated to preserving life than Haredim. 

In Israel, many Haredim harbor, justifiably or not, a distrust of the government. But once it was properly and sensitively communicated to Haredi enclaves that social distancing and other measures were needed to avoid contracting or spreading the virus, Israeli Haredim, like their counterparts in the U.S., complied with alacrity.  

Enlightening, too, is the Haredi response to medical authorities’ calls for plasma donations from people who have survived the infection. Within hours of posting notes about the need for blood donations to conduct antibody research, facilities in New York were flooded with thousands of would-be blood donors.

The scene repeated itself in places like Baltimore, Maryland and Lakewood, New Jersey, which host major Haredi communities. More than half of the plasma donors at New York’s famed Mount Sinai Hospital were identifiably Orthodox Jews.

So much for disdaining science and medicine.

But the most common –- and most egregious – libel lobbed at the Haredi world over recent weeks has been focused on its spiritual leaders.

Typical of the exaggerations about how Haredim regard their religious leaders was the claim by Anshel Pfeffer, a perennial critic of Haredim, that we regard our rabbis as "infallible."  

Writing similarly in the Los Angeles-based Jewish Journal, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg decries "the Haredi Gedolim," whom he sees as "guided by…insular theological thinking." 

Does Mr. Pfeffer consider the most respected doctor in a particular field to be infallible? Surely not. Does that fact somehow preclude seeking the doctor’s advice?

And does Rabbi Greenberg not recognize that the very essence and power of Judaism is Torah-based guidance, i.e. “insular theological thinking”?

An example of such thinking was the reluctance of Haredi leaders to close the community’s schools when Israeli public schools shut their doors. Those leaders were ridiculed for taking seriously the Talmud’s teaching that the “breath of the children” exhaled in their Torah study verily upholds the world.

But here’s the thing – and it’s a most important thing: We Haredim really believe that.

It’s odd that liberal-minded Jews tend to allow others their particularistic beliefs if those others follow any one of a myriad of belief systems. But not if they are their fellow Jews (believing, in fact, in what has been called Judaism for millennia).

Every decision about closing things down during the advent of the coronavirus crisis has been about weighing the needs and the costs. Even at this point, essential services like keeping the electrical grids operative and the tap water flowing have not been shut down. 

To a Haredi leader, shutting down schools is closer to those examples than to the closing of businesses and places of entertainment. Disagree, critics, if you wish. But please don’t disparage or hate Haredim for their sincere beliefs. 

So much rancor in Klal Yisrael is due to the refusal of Jews to imagine things from the perspective of other Jews. Yes, we Haredim actually believe that children’s learning Torah maintains the world. Yes, we sincerely believe that Torah study protects Jews no less than army service. Yes, we fully believe that Shabbos is a gift, not a burden.

And, yes, I urge my fellow Haredim, no less, to try to inhabit the minds of those who oppose them, to try to better understand the reasons others have to resent them.

In my happiest dreams, both camps do just that, and the Jewish world is a far more pleasant, and healthy, place.

Blog #2

In last week’s blog about Covid -19, I wrote:

...despite our amazing 21st century technology and knowhow - our greatest minds have been found wanting. Why? Of course, I don’t know, but I can’t help but wonder if the Almighty isn’t laying the groundwork for the beginning of the Messianic era – where G-d’s presence in the world will be felt and appreciated far more than it is today?

Apparently, Sara Yoheved Rigler, a bestselling author, international lecturer,and inspirational teacher was thinking in similar terms. Here is an article she penned called “Covid-19 and the Messiah.”

The Covid-19 global crisis is a dark tunnel, and humanity is on a train passing through it. According to Judaism, unlike other ancient worldviews, that train does not move in an endless circle. Rather it moves in a line toward a definite destination: The Complete Redemption, also called the Messianic Era.

All of the Biblical prophets described that destination: A world of universal peace, where "Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither will they practice war anymore." (Isaiah 2:4) That peace will prevail not only among nations, but also among individuals. People of different dispositions will live together in harmony. 

As Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan pointed out, the famous passage about peace in the animal kingdom is really an allegory for the end of human exploitation and violence. There will be no more predators and victims. "The wolf will dwell with the lamb; the leopard will lie down with the kid; the calf, the young lion, and the fatling together, will be led by a young child. The cow will graze with the bear; their young will lie down together; the lion will eat straw like the ox" (Isaiah 11:6-7).

How will this state of utopia come about? Through the advent of universal God-consciousness. As Isaiah prophesized, "The earth will be full of the knowledge of God, as the waters cover the sea" (11:9). All human folly and frailty derive from a lack of God-consciousness. 

As Judaism has been insisting for three and a half millennia, God is one. This means not just that there is only one God rather than a pantheon of many gods, but also that the underlying Truth of reality is oneness. When God created the physical world, He permitted the illusion of multiplicity and separation to mask the spiritual reality of oneness. During the coming period of the Complete Redemption [Geula Shleima], this mask will fall. All human beings will become cognizant of God and of the essential Godliness of other human beings.

This quantum leap in human consciousness will be brought about through the agency of an exceedingly wise and righteous human being called Moshiach [messiah], who will be a descendent of King David. Religious Jews pray thrice daily, "May the shoot of David sprout." One of the “Thirteen Principles of the Faith” delineated by Maimonides is, “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of Moshiach, and even though he tarries, with all that, I await his coming every day.” According to the sages of the Talmud, one of the six questions that all Jews will be asked when their souls come to heavenly judgment is, “Did you anticipate the Redemption?”

Will the Messianic Era come soon, or is it shrouded in the mists of a distant future? According to our sages, the Moshiach must reveal himself by the year 6000. We are currently in the year 5780 of the Jewish calendar. However, certain factors can cause Moshiach to come sooner.

Before discussing those factors and whether the current global crisis feeds into them, we must clarify a crucial issue: Most rabbis are reluctant to talk about Moshiach’s coming, and for good reason. There are historical and philosophical reasons for this aversion.

Historically, false messiahs have wrought calamity to the Jewish people. The best (actually, worst) example is Shabbetai Tzvi, who declared himself the Messiah in 1648. The Chmielnicki massacres of that year had decimated the Jewish population of Poland, leaving the Jews of Europe and the Ottoman Empire desperate for salvation. Over the next two decades, large masses of Jews became convinced that Shabbetai Tzvi was Moshiach. They sold all their property and started to journey to the land of Israel. (Return of the Jewish people to Israel is the first stage of the Messianic Era.)

But in 1666, when the Turkish Sultan offered him the choice of conversion to Islam or death, Shabbetai Tzvi became an apostate, crushing the hopes and spirits of all but his most die-hard followers. The resulting trauma left the Jewish people in a post-traumatic wary-of-Moshiach state that lingers to this day.

Rabbis throughout history have argued about whether it is permissible to calculate the date of the coming of Moshiach. The predominant view is that it is forbidden to calculate the date. Rabbi Pinchas Winston explains why. First of all, if one projects a specific date for Moshiach’s coming, then one will not expect him on all the days prior to that date. The Talmudic sages, however, established that Moshiach should be expected imminently. Additionally, those who project a specific date for Moshiach’s coming may be so deflated if he does not come that day that they will despair of his coming at all.

Nevertheless, the major rabbis of the last several decades have stated that humanity is in the general period of “the birthpangs of Moshiach.” Just as the birth of a baby is preceded by excruciating labor pains, so the wars and terrorism of this past century are the necessary prelude to Moshiach’s emergence.

The main controversy about when the world is ready for the Complete Redemption hinges on whether the pre-condition for Moshiach is that people will be exceptionally good or exceptionally bad. The Torah itself prophesizes a mass return to faith in God and adherence to the mitzvahs: “There will come a time when you will experience all the words of blessing and curse that I have presented to you…. And you will return to the Lord, your God, and obey Him. … Then the Lord your God will return your exiles” (Deut. 30:1-3).

According to the Talmudic sages, however, the period of the “birthpangs of Moshiach” will be a time of decadence and scorn of those who live by Torah. It will be characterized by a predominance of chutzpah. “In the final days before the advent of Moshiach, chutzpah will abound…. Children will shame the elderly, and the elderly will stand before youth; a son will abuse his father, a daughter will rebel against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A man’s enemies will be the members of his own household. Those who fear sin will become repulsive, and truth will disappear. … The son of David [Moshiach] will not come … until slander proliferates” (Sanhedrin 97a).

Viewing the world through the Torah’s standards, one could say that the present age has hit a moral nadir. The “me-too” movement has revealed sexual assault and harassment of women as widespread as the coronavirus. Adultery rates in America indicate that 20 to 40% of married men and 20 to 25% of married women have engaged in marital infidelity. Close to 500,000 images of child pornography are posted on the internet every week. Anti-Semitism throughout the world has spiked. In such a world, how can the Complete Redemption occur?

The Chafetz Chaim, the great sage of the 20th century, solved the contradiction by declaring in his little-known work written in 1930, “There will be two categories of Jews in the generation of redemption, and both are instrumental in bringing the redemption closer.… The first category of those who hasten the redemption consists of those who vigorously intensify their service of God and that of their children, with all their hearts and souls” (On Awaiting Moshiach1, p. 23). 

The Chafetz Chaim goes on to describe the “second category of Jews who hasten the redemption”:

This generation will be weak in its religious observance, and each person will do as he sees fit.… Nevertheless, this should not cause us anguish, for this itself is a sign of the redemption! … They rely on their own judgment, which contradicts that of all previous generations. They despise those sages, scholars, and holy men of earlier generations who sacrificed their lives for the sake of each and every law of the Torah. …

Thus, no benefit can result from the continuation of this long exile. Israel’s merits are no longer growing and flourishing, thereby increasing our reward. On the contrary, acceptance of our tradition and compliance therewith continues to decrease and has almost ceased, God forbid. …

Therefore, the Holy One, blessed is He, must hasten the redemption and “open the eyes of the blind” to the true light. The Holy One, blessed is He, will not abandon His dispersed children, God forbid.… This is the meaning of the verse, “Yet, even then, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not abhor them or spurn them so as to destroy them and annul My covenant with them, for I am the Lord, their God” (Lev. 26:44).

… Accordingly, in the final period before the coming of Moshiach, there will be two categories of Jews. Both will hasten the arrival of Moshiach – one through their good deeds and suffering, and the other through unworthy deeds. Obviously, it is preferable to be included in the first category of Jews rather than the second [pp. 26-30].

When the coronavirus first hit Europe and America, closing down commerce, schools, universities, entertainment, sports, etc., the pundits referred to it as pressing the “pause button” on society. But as of this writing, with nearly two and a half million people infected and 170,883 dead, many commentators are opining that the “pause button” is really a “reset button,” and that the world will never return to its pre-Covid-19 state.

The Department for Strategic Planning within Israel’s Foreign Ministry on April 12, 2020 made public a document composed by twenty diplomats and Foreign Ministry experts. Among its dire predictions were an economic depression rivalling the Great Depression of the 1930s, global destabilization with China and the West locking horns, dwindling health supplies, and additional pandemics.

Rather than such predictions leading us to anxiety and despair, Judaism’s response is always hope, because we are assured that all roads, however rough, lead to the Complete Redemption. This resolute optimism, based on Biblical guarantees, has enabled the Jewish People to weather all the crises of our long and challenging history.

The current global crisis could be a likely scenario for the advent of Moshiach. Spiritual truth cannot sprout in ground crowded with the weeds of false beliefs and tenaciously held fealty to false gods. The last few years have seen an unprecedented disillusionment with government. With the malls closed and the stock market in seizures, the bastions of materialism and economic security are crumbling. Confusion abounds. Might humanity now be open to hearing the voice of Moshiach?

Some Talmudic sages predicted that the Complete Redemption will come with miracles greater than the miracles of the Exodus from Egypt. Yet others declared that it will be a time of upheaval, of earthquakes and natural disasters, when no one will have any money in his pocket.

The coronavirus pandemic is accelerating the speed of humanity’s train. We, all of us, are barreling toward the Complete Redemption. Whether we will reach the destination next week, next month, next year, or in a decade, no one knows. But the only way to be ready is to yearn for that period of peace, harmony, and universal God-consciousness, so we will recognize it when it – when we – arrive.