Even after the solemn warnings of government officials, epidemiologists, and the police, to shelter-in-place and observe social distancing, ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel and New York refused to heed the dire warnings and continued to gather in large numbers in synagogues and at funerals and weddings. The results have been catastrophic. Some communal leaders have been stricken by COVID-19 along with a considerable portion of the community resulting in the quarantine of the entire Israeli city of B’nei Brak. To outsiders, the brash disregard of scientific evidence and civil authorities seems foolish and even criminal, putting themselves along with many others at risk of infection. How can we account for this kind of behavior?
Just over five hundred years ago Don Isaac Abarbanel offered an explication of the census at the beginning of the book of Numbers that explains the kind of thinking at work. He contrasts the instructions for a census in Exodus 30 with the census in Numbers 1. In Exodus, taking a census requires counting the half shekel for each adult male rather than counting heads. But in Numbers, counting heads is prescribed. This seems to be a contradiction.
Abarbanel resolves the contradiction by pointing out that the instructions in Exodus apply to times when the leaders of Israel decide for themselves to count their numbers in order to assess, for example, how many can be mustered for the army. Under these circumstances, coins were required so that “no plague may come upon them” (Exodus 30:12). But at the beginning of Numbers, it is God Who demands the census. Since the count is taken on God’s instructions, heads may be counted without fear. As Abarbanel puts it: “the observer of a commandment shall not know harm.” This principle has come to be part of the mindset of the ultra-Orthodox world: those engaged in the intensive practice of the mitzvot are protected from harm. As Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky is reported to have stated: “The Torah protects and saves.”
But this is not the lesson that should be applied. First, it is simply not true. One of the ultra-Orthodox political leaders expected to pick up the fight against government regulation of B’nei Brak, Yakov Litzman, Health Minister (!) admitted that he was infected. Torah, it seems, did not protect him or an estimated 40,000 others. And second, the Talmud (Pesahim 8a-b) disputes the claim. Regarding searching for hametz before Pesah, the Talmud considers at length the limits of the search. At one point the Talmud puts forward the notion that God protects those engaged in the performance of a mitzvah so Jews could reach into dark places without fear of scorpions, for example. But, in the end, the Talmud rejects this view claiming that it does not apply when the danger is common. In other words, God’s protection may not be invoked when the danger is clear.
Abarbanel should be understood as using hyperbole: following the Torah has beneficial effects. This is undoubtedly true. But it is the Torah itself that commands us to look after our health (Deut. 4:9).