COVID-19 and Modern Orthodoxy: Is Acceptance of Science a Religious Failing?

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COVID-19 and Modern Orthodoxy: Is Acceptance of Science a Religious Failing?
Yitzchak Blau

Shaul Magid’s recent essay in Tablet, “COVID-19, Haredi Jewry and ‘Magical’ Thinking” generated a good deal of internet discussion, not a surprise as the essay touches on important questions regarding Modern Orthodoxy, the Haredi world, and their different ideologies. Magid argues that criticism of the Haredi response to the pandemic has been blown out of proportion and that their behavior, in fact, reveals a fidelity to traditional ideas lacking in Modern Orthodox circles.

Magid rejects Rabbi Yitz Greenberg’s dual censure of the Haredi community in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic. Greenberg writes that Haredi theology errs in seeing “sickness and natural catastrophes as divine punishment for sins rather than as natural phenomena.” Magid’s critique hits home. Even if Jewish tradition includes multiple models of response to catastrophe, we cannot deny the prominence of the idea that traces suffering to sin. Secondly, Greenberg faults the Haredim for magical thinking believing that their actions can control and manipulate God. Again, Magid’s critique strikes its target. Believing that God rewards and punishes for human behavior does not entail removing divine choice about how to respond. This tenet can be sharply distinguished from the morally indifferent concept of magic.

Magid’s essay criticizes Modern Orthodoxy’s religious weakness in accepting the scientific view of the universe in contrast to Haredim who “really believe.” For Magid, viewing mitzva performance as more protective than establishing a police force reflects authentic Judaism. Perhaps keeping batei midrash open really battles Coronavirus more powerfully than social distancing. This portrayal of Judaism radically oversimplifies matters. Our tradition has always included a wide range of approaches to human suffering and the workings of divine providence. Any simple equation between suffering and sin must also confront Sefer Iyov and the many Talmudic models that outline other possibilities. God faults Iyov’s friends for attributing his travails to sinfulness. Talmudic teachings about “afflictions of love” (Berakhot 5a), “there is suffering without sin” (Shabbat 55b), and “reward for the commandments is not found in this world” (Kiddushin 40b) all contradict a simplistic application of reward and punishment based solely on religious behavior.

Furthermore, Judaism respects the natural order and the need to consider human initiative within that order. One is not allowed to rely on a miracle (Yerushalmi Shekalim 6:3, Shabbat 32a), and even though “those on the path to perform a mitzva are not susceptible to harm,” that rule ceases to operate when danger is likely (Pesahim 8b).The Torah assumes the need for an army and a police force in a Jewish state.

Moreover, our tradition includes the idea of a growing minimization of the miraculous and divine intervention over the course of history (Berakhot 20a). A comparison of Tanakh and the Talmud Bavli reveals that, in the latter, prophecy has ceased and divine intervention has become less frequent and less obvious than in biblical times. This reduction in the clarity of providence becomes even more dramatic in the modern era. As R. Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz stated, we cannot treat contemporary heretics with the harshness that rabbinical authorities did in Talmudic times because those laws apply only “when His providence is manifest, miracles are common, and heavenly voices are heard” (Hazon Ish,Yoreh Deah 2:16).

Keeping yeshivot open in opposition to Ministry of Health guidelines does not reflect a more authentic Jewish approach since Judaism mandates that health concerns are of supreme importance. Haredi groups that were slow to realize this were religiously incorrect. It is admittedly true that, on the whole, Modern Orthodox Jews struggle with belief more than Haredim do. Exposure to the intellectual challenges of evolutionary biology, academic bible scholarship and postmodernism, confronting moral questions about women’s issues or homosexuality, and the social difficulties of a secularized society take their toll. That being said, and admitting to the existence of Orthopraxy, it is certainly false to assert as a grand generalization that Modern Orthodox Jews lack belief. Many of us pray with great seriousness, engage in Torah study not just as an intellectual exercise but as an act of devotion,and utilize a language that talks about God without hesitation. Our intellectual leaders, such as R. Jonathan Sacks, R. Shalom Carmy, and Dr. David Shatz write essays vindicating their faith commitments.

Magid reports that Modern Orthodox Jews visit blessing-granting segula-dispensing rabbis along with their Haredi brethren. They check their mezuzot in response to calamity. He describes this as an inconsistency– accepting science while using horseshoes because “it can’t hurt.” How widespread are these practices in Modern Orthodox communities? A few anecdotal accounts do not establish a statistical reality. However, even if Magid is correct, all it proves is that not all Modern Orthodox Jews adhere to a more austere and rationalistic form of belief, that many people do not have a worked out and consistent philosophy, or that nervous fear leads many to engage in practices that do not cohere with their worldview. The fact that secularists also engage in such endeavors indicates the lure of such practices. It is not an argument against Modern Orthodoxy.

Modern Orthodox Jews have not relinquished belief but it is true that our belief system differs greatly from much of Haredi ideology. The doctrine of hishtadlus and bitachon is fairly common Haredi fare, expounded in such classics as Mesilat Yesharim (chapter 21), Mikhtav me-Elihayu (vol. 1,p.177), Sihot Musar (no. 35, 69, and 70),and Hazon Ish (Kovetz Mikhtavim, p. 5).These texts portray the natural order as an illusion and suggest that our exertions do not, in fact, causally produce results. We still have to put in effort as some kind of punishment, tax, or test, but those efforts do not directly impact upon the world. Modern Orthodox Jews do not think of the world in this way and two points explain our differing worldview.

First, the hishtadlus approach is empirically incorrect as human efforts and ingenuity do usually produce results in a direct fashion. Those who try harder tend to do better, and those with an intelligent plan achieve more. Am Yisrael is famously warned against asserting that “our strength and the might of our hands” accomplished our goals (Devarim 8:16). Abravanel explains that this verse does not deny that our physical efforts enable our success; after all, “one cannot deny empirical evidence.” Instead, it reminds us to acknowledge that God created humanity with the power and intelligence to overcome obstacles.

Additionally, the Haredi approach is morally problematic because it potentially leads to a devaluing of human efforts to improve the lives of others although it certainly does not always do so. Haredim go to doctors, establish impressive hesed organizations, and they have been donating plasma during the current crisis. However, in two crucial contexts, this ideology has had significant negative impact. Haredi men stay in kollel for years while their parents and wives work extremely hard to support them. More significantly, Haredi men in Israel exempt themselves from enlisting in the IDF. The hishtadlus ideology helps explain the ethical failure of an entire community exempting itself from army service while usually showing no gratitude to those who do serve and protect the country. From the hishtadlus perspective, soldiers patrolling the Lebanese border do not ultimately provide protection.

The same ideology occasionally finds extreme expression in Haredi literature. R. Yisrael Eliyahu Weintraub, a close confidant of Rav Shach, fiercely objected to a project in which every yeshiva student would adopt a soldier in order to pray and learn on his behalf because the observant community should want no connection with secularists. He cites a second hand account from the Brisker Rav, R. Velvel Soloveichik, affirming that the soldiers do not provide protection.“All those saved come from the power of bnei Torah…and all those killed are on their ledger, and if not for their existence, no one would be killed at all” (Einei Yisrael, p. 434).Along the same lines, it is inconceivable that a Modern Orthodox book would contain a story purporting to quote Rav Moshe Feinstein saying that finding a cancer cure is bittul Torah (R. Michel Shurkin, Meged Givot Olam 1:23).

We need not worry that the hishtadlus approach reflects the totality of the rabbinic tradition. Rambam powerfully affirms the reality of the natural order (Moreh Nevukhim 2:48), Rav Kook celebrates human initiative within the natural order while cautioning about the dangers of overemphasizing bitahon (Ein Aya Shabbat 2:192, 194), and R. Soloveitchik writes that “curing, healing the sick is a divine attribute reflecting an activity (רופא חולים) in which man ought to engage” (TRADITION, Spring 1978, p. 34).   

Our rejection of the hishtadlus approach highlights a serious flaw in Magid’s account when he writes that facts cannot support or refute theology. Stephen Jay Gould’s Rock of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life famously suggested that since religion is about values and science is about facts, they cannot conflict. Gould’s point has some validity but, as a sweeping solution, it fails. Science does not always remain value neutral nor can religion fully isolate itself from the facts of science and history. Theologians do not just pontificate in a monastery; they try to express a theology that coheres with human experience. Theology must account for the fact that the universe appears to function in a scientific fashion and that divine justice does not get meted out in our current existence in observable ways. Thus, Modern Orthodoxy, with all its many flaws, has good reason to adhere to its acceptance of the natural order. The critique of some Haredi resistance to social distancing in the name of religion rings true.

To be fair, many problematic and harmful ideas emerge in the name of science which tend to endorse determinism, fail to appreciate aspects of human experience which cannot be measured in laboratory exploration and precise measurement, and often exhibit a pathological hatred of religion. Nonetheless, accepting a scientific view of the universe does not require us to fall into the trap of scientism. I believe that such acceptance reflects religious authenticity.

[For an excellent discussion of these issue, see David Shatz, “Divine Intervention and Religious Sensibilities” in Jewish Thought in Dialogue (Academic Studies Press, 2009), 179-208).]

Rabbi Yitzchak Blau, Associate Editor of TRADITION, is Rosh Yeshivat Orayta.

[Published on May 20, 2020]

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