First They Came for the Catholics
The controversy over the Obama administration's issuance of regulations mandating employer provided health insurance coverage for contraceptives is as relevant to observant Jews as to Catholics. For one thing, the issue serves as a clear reminder that the larger the bureaucratic state grows the smaller will be the realm of individual liberty, including freedom of religion.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius had ample warning that the regulations issued under Obamacare would set off a storm. After being posted in the Federal Register for comment, a multitude of religious groups and organizations, as well as defenders of religious liberty, commented negatively. Nevertheless the administration forged ahead without changing so much as a comma from the originally proposed regulations.
The regulations proposed various distinctions based on how many of the institution's employees are members of the religion under whose aegis the institution is being run. But they all missed the essential point: Catholic hospitals, funded by local archdioceses, bear the imprimatur of the Catholic Church no matter what percentage of their employees are Catholics. To force the Church to pay for medications whose use it opposes – for all human beings not just Catholics – is coercing it to contradict its most basic tenets.
At one level, the infringement on religious liberty involved in forcing the Church to act in violation of its conscience and Catholic teaching is an even greater violation of religious liberty than would be the outlawing of shechitah (kosher slaughter). The latter would certainly be a major imposition on Jewish life, and would prevent the optimal fulfillment of a number of mitzvos, such as oneg Shabbos and simchas Yom Tov. But it would not require any Jew to act in contravention of halacha or to violate his religious conscience. Forcing the Catholic Church to underwrite the provision of medications whose use it condemns requires it to directly transgress its own religious teachings.
The only choice left to the Church would be to stop supporting hospitals, presumably part of its religious mission, just as it has been forced to close some of the most successful adoption agencies because of laws banning adoption agencies from discriminating against single-sex couples.
The director of Agudath Israel of America's Washington D.C. office, Rabbi Abba Cohen forcefully made the point about the degree of religious coercion involved: "No religiously-sponsored entity, and no religiously motivated individual, should be forced by government to violate its or his sincerely held religious principles; and the determination of religious propriety must be left to the religious entity or individual."
For the Department of HHW to attempt to enunciate criteria to determine how serious is the usurpation of religious conscience is to involve the secular government in questions far beyond its competence. (Recall President Obama's evasion of a question during the 2008 campaign of a question on when does life begin on the grounds that it was "above his pay grade.") The matter, as the ever insightful David P. Goldman points out, is no different than when the British High Court ruled that matrilineal descent, as the test of exclusion from an Orthodox school, is "racist," and Judaism thus a racist religion.
It is possible to offer ta'amim for matrilineal descent and even to point to the sources in religious texts. But at the end of the day, it is the Divine Will, as transmitted through the mesorah, not logic, that determines "Who is a Jew?" And that is a matter beyond the jurisdiction of a secular government. Similarly, the justification for shechitah cannot ultimately rest on scientific demonstration that it is the most humane method of slaughter, but on religious mysteries about what is required for food to elevate our neshamos.
Goldman is correct to decry the failure of many Jews and Jewish organizations to stand by the Catholic Church in the current controversy – as the British Catholic Church stood by the Orthodox community against the British High Court. His title says it all: "Memo to Jews: After They Come for the Catholic Church, They Will Come for Us."
Making Sense of the Failure to Protest
Over the last two months, the chareidi community in Eretz Yisrael has been constantly asked: Why have none of the leading rabbis denounced the stone-throwers and spitters? Sometimes that question has been rhetorical, and used by the media to "prove" that the entire community tacitly supports the extremists. But more often, I think, the question has emanated from a genuine desire for reassurance that the violent few do not represent the chareidi community.
My friend Rabbi Aharon Lopiansky of the Yeshiva of Greater Washington recently pointed out to me something that refutes the first group of questioners and can provide comfort to the second. Well over a decade ago, Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, he should be well, proposed a halachically acceptable means to allow highway construction to continue over possible Jewish graveyards.
Rav Elyashiv's status as the recognized posek of the generation provided him with no protection against the meshugoyim. His car was stoned, and even his nightly Gemara shiur was interrupted in the middle by young protesters. (When they started chanting repeatedly, "We protest. We protest," the usually unflappable Rav Elyashiv asked them, "Allst what? ("On what basis?"), which shut them up quickly.) One of the leading younger poskim who had spent much time on the issue found himself unable to open his front door one morning because of the garbage piled high in front.
On his last visit to the United States, Rav Aharon Leib Steinman was greeted by large crowds everywhere he went. But at almost every stop where Jews gathered to be inspired by the great sage, there were other much smaller groups of apparently religious Jews who came to protest his alleged "Zionism."
The common element in both cases was that no leading rabbonim issued condemnations of the efforts to denigrate and embarrass the most revered rabbis of the generation. Why not? I suppose because they understood that their words would fall on deaf ears. After all, if the protesters did not hesitate to treat with disdain the most respected rabbonim of the generation, why should anyone who penned a protest expect to be better received?
At the same time, no one can suspect that the lack of respect for the honor of Rav Elyashiv and Rav Steinman did not horrify every great Torah leader who heard of it. Thus we have a concrete proof that rabbinic silence cannot be interpreted as silent approbation. Rather it is often a reflection of an understanding that for those who would heed the protest it is self-understood, and that for those whose behavior is being protested it will not make an iota of difference.
Don't Be Fools
"Child-Injury Rate in Road Accidents in Chareidi Sector 1.5 Times Higher Than Among General Public," read a recent headline HaModia's Israel section. Not exactly a model of editorial concision, or a headline likely to bring much joy to the hearts of chareidi readers.
Nevertheless I found something positive about both the headline and the accompanying story. The major positive point: the story ran at all. Self-criticism is not always the strongest point of our community. As individuals, we all recognize the importance of cheshbon hanefesh. But because of our sense of being besieged by a hostile secular media determined to portray us in the worst possible light, we are often reluctant to speak publicly about anything that we fear might be used against us.
And when uncomfortable facts come to light, such as epidemics in chareidi communities of diseases like whooping cough or measles, for which vaccinations exist, we often avoid the implications – in this case, our propensity to reject the scientific or medical consensus.
Yet remarkably the relatively brief article accompanying the above headline was devoid of any suggestion that the study's findings were fueled by some sort of anti-chareidi bias. Indeed the author explicitly rejected that suggestion. The findings were presented unvarnished – for instance, 22% of chareidi children ages 3 to 5 were observed crossing streets unescorted.
We are rightly resentful every time a news story about a child accidently left in a car or forgotten at an amusement park focuses on the fact that the family is chareidi or on the size of the family, as if to argue – sometimes explicitly -- that we have more children than we can handle. At the same time, we should not deny that greater parental attentiveness is required to take care of seven children than one, or that there are specific dangers in frum households that should be widely publicized. Doctors who work in emergency rooms servicing religious neighborhoods, have, for instance, commented on the numbers of children badly burned by pulling Shabbos urns off the blech.
In particular, there is a too common attitude that paying attention to warnings about health or other hazards is somehow goyish. Doesn't that explain, in part, why smoking rates are still higher today among yeshiva bochurim than among any other group at a similar educational or intellectual level? Sometimes we hear unhealthy or dangerous behavior defended as a ma'alah in bitachon.
When I see a mother pushing a baby stroller across a street with one hand, while talking on her cellphone with the other, and somehow trusting in the fact that her three-year-old is keeping pace at her side, or a father driving down the street, with a young child on his lap behind the steering wheel, I may pray "shomer pesaim Hashem," but I'm not inclined to believe that is the pshat in the verse. And apparently the statistics about the too high rate of accidents involving chareidi children bear me out.