A recent article in the Times of Israel reports that an Israeli charity affiliated with a prominent Hareidi rabbi has been promising donors who pay 3000 shekels ($836) that they will thereby gain immunity from the coronavirus for themselves and their families. The Kupat Ha’Ir website states that donors will receive an amulet as well as an assurance from the rabbi that there will not be anyone sick in the donor’s home. Since launching this campaign, the charity is reported to have raised over 280,000 shekels ($77,990).
This charity campaign is an example of how our religion is being cheapened; how seemingly “religious” individuals seek to exploit a gullible public; how magic and superstition are dressed in the garb of religiosity. If indeed the prominent Hareidi rabbi has the power to protect people from coronavirus, then why doesn’t he do so for everyone, not just for those ready to shell out 3000 shekels? And is it appropriate for any rabbi to be so certain that he can control the spread of a virus by issuing prayers and amulets? People who foolishly trust in the efficacy of these amulets may behave in risky ways that bring them into proximity of those who have the virus. In spite of the amulets, they may get sick and die. Will the Hareidi rabbi and his charity partners take responsibility for the pain, suffering and death of those who put their faith in their promises?
One of the reasons I founded the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals (in 2007) was because I was increasingly unhappy with the “Hareidization” of Judaism. Orthodoxy was becoming more authoritarian, narrow-minded, obscurantist. It was choking off freedom of thought and freedom of discussion. At its worst, it was becoming more of a superstition-ridden sect rather than a world religion. Our Institute has been a steady voice for an intellectually vibrant, compassionate and inclusive Orthodox Judaism, a Judaism that fosters diversity, creativity, personal autonomy. Each of our supporters is a partner in our work to bring Torah Judaism back to a position of honor and respectability.
Some years ago, I wrote an article that dealt with the same charity that is now offering immunity to coronavirus. Here’s what I wrote then…and it remains true (unfortunately) to this day.
I (along with many others) periodically receive a brochure from an organization that provides charity to needy individuals and families. The brochure includes abundant pictures of saintly-looking men with long white beards, engaged in Torah study and prayer, and signing their names on behalf of this charity. The brochure promises us that "the Gedolei Hador are the official members of the organization." One of the Gedolei Hador is quoted to say: "All who contribute to [this charity] merit to see open miracles." We are asked to contribute to this cause so that the Gedolei Hador will pray on our behalf. We even are given choices of what merit we would like to receive from these prayers: to have nahat from our children; to have children; to find a worthy mate; to earn an easy livelihood. "Urgent requests are immediately forwarded to the home of the Gedolei Hador." If we are willing to contribute so much per name, we are guaranteed that a minyan of outstanding talmidei hakhamim will pray for us at the Kotel. If we contribute a lesser amount, we only will have the prayer recited by one outstanding talmid hakham. We are also told that we can write our request as a kvitel and it will be placed in the Kotel for forty days; we can even transmit our prayer requests by telephone hotline, after we have made a contribution via credit card.
This charity purports not only to be Torah-true, but to have the involvement and backing of the Gedolei Hador. Anyone looking at the brochure would see this as an Orthodox Jewish charity operated by highly religious individuals.
Let us grant that this is indeed a worthy charity that provides assistance to needy Jews. Let us grant that the people who operate this charity see themselves as pious Jews of the highest caliber, literally linked to the Gedolei Hador. Yet, the brochure is not an example of true religion at all, but of something far more akin to superstition.
Is it appropriate for a Gadol Hador to assure contributors that they will be worthy of open miracles? Can anyone rightfully speak on behalf of the Almighty's decisions relating to doing open miracles? Doesn't this statement reflect a belief that prayers uttered by so-called sages (similar to incantations uttered by shamans?!) can control God's actions, even to the extent of making Him do miracles?
Moreover, why should people be made to feel that they are not qualified to pray to God directly? Why should "religious leaders" promote the notion that if people will pay money, some pious individual will recite a prayer at the Kotel-and that the prayer uttered by such an individual at the Kotel is more efficacious than one's own prayers? How tasteless and contrary to religious values is the notion that a minyan of outstanding talmidei hakhamim will pray if you pay enough; but only one will pray for you if you choose to contribute less than the recommended sum?
It is time, well past time, for thinking Orthodox Jews to stand up forcefully against the corruption and denigration of our religion. If we do not do so, we are betraying the God of truth and the Torah of truth. If not us, who? If not now, when?