Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, the Chafetz Chaim, was one of the greatest and most influential Torah leaders of modern times. His works are staples in every true Jewish home, and his saintliness was legendary. He divinely predicted that European Jewry would be decimated but Hitler’s army would be unable to invade Eretz Yisrael, where a remnant would be spared.
But I wonder if even the Chafetz Chaim knew that two footnotes about him would offer us critical guidance nearly a century after his passing.
The Chafetz Chaim lived at the juncture between the old world and the modern world. The Reform movement had metastasized into a powerful threat to authentic Judaism, just as the scientific establishment – and the tycoons who controlled it – were starting to believe they can and should control everything. The role of a doctor in society was evolving from the traditional one outlined in this series to that of a nanny and ultimately a dictator.
If the Chafetz Chaim lived today, what would he do? How would he guide us? Fortunately, the answer is clear from the example he already set.
The Chafetz Chaim on the Torah is a small collection of his teachings on the weekly Torah portions, plus related stories from his life, which appear in footnotes. Below are English translations of two footnotes from Parshas Va’eschanan.
“Another time he explained this verse [Devarim 4:15, that one should very much guard his life/soul] that it is incumbent upon a person to take care of his body, just as a wagon driver must take care of his horse that it shouldn’t starve, for isn’t it from him that he earns his livelihood? Likewise a person needs to take care of his body that he shouldn’t harm it, for from it comes life, as well as for the soul.
“And one time he rebuked one of the famous Roshei Yeshiva in Europe for holding himself back from eating a piece of meat every day, and saved it all for the sake of his students, that nothing should be taken from their daily food.
“And he said as follows in his sweet style, ‘Among the numerous matters that are incumbent upon the Rosh Yeshiva in his role as a Rabbi to his students, there is one urgent matter that is worthy of particular attention: that he should make sure his students have a healthy Rosh Yeshiva.’
“He also said that the mitzva to guard one’s health is extremely great. More than once he would order the lamps in the yeshiva to be extinguished at a late hour in the night, in order that the students should go to sleep. He had a pearl in his mouth [was fond of saying] that this too was the advice of the yetzer hara [evil inclination], in order that the students should become weak, thanks to their excessive diligence, and they would later completely stop learning Torah. And so he would say, ‘Even if the yetzer hara advises you to learn [at such hours], don’t desire it and don’t listen to him, for his intentions are not pleasing.’
“And in his final years, when due to weakness it was hard for him to walk, he would push himself in spite of this to walk four cubits after eating, to fulfill the words of our sages in Shabbos 41A...” (Footnote 3)
The Chafetz Chaim was extremely stringent about protecting one’s health, and considered martyring one’s health to learn extra Torah as sinfully self-destructive. Furthermore, unlike many modern Jews who pompously dismiss the health teachings of Chazal as outdated, the Chafetz Chaim treated their wisdom in these areas with reverence as well.
Surely, then, the Chafetz Chaim would place the recommendations of health experts on a pedestal…right?
Here for your consideration is footnote 7 from the same Torah portion:
“…When it became known to the Chafetz Chaim that a conference of doctors was going to take place in Vilna, and they were planning to offer various suggestions “for the sake of the health” of the yeshiva students, such as to limit their hours of learning, and to designate an hour or two every day for exercise, and other improvements and “repairs” of this type, such as to reduce the number of students in each group, the Chafetz Chaim, of blessed memory, first sent a letter of blessing to the chairman of the conference, the well-known doctor [Zemach] Shabad, and these were his words:
“’As I have heard that there will soon be a conference of doctors, and his honor will be the chairman, I send my blessings to him, that the Healer of all flesh should send you His assistance and blessing from above. Being that I heard that the situation in the yeshivos is of great interest at your conference, I thought to inform you that, thank God, the yeshivos are standing on a firm and stable foundation. The students receive all their needs, and they are served three meals a day. Approximately two hours a day they rejuvenate themselves with walks, and, thank God, they are healthy and whole. Surely this will be of great joy to you.‘
“And after signing he added the following two lines: ‘I wanted to remind his honor that it is written in the Torah ‘Whoever touches the mountain [Mount Sinai when the Jews were given the Torah] will surely die.‘ If touching the mountain is deserving of death, one who touches the Torah itself [interferes with Torah study] how much more so.‘”
It is fair to assume that Doctor Shabad and his colleagues did not have sinister motives in establishing health regulations for yeshivos. Again, this was when science and technology were starting to take great leaps forward. Most likely these doctors saw themselves as enlightened health experts, privy to revolutionary new discoveries, whose duty it was to impose their wisdom on primitive Torah scholars for their own good.
The position of doctors was evolving to that of a vaunted authority who makes rules for society. Modern science was evolving into a new form of idolatry. The Chafetz Chaim witnessed these changes, and had the foresight to recognize the existential threat of letting “health experts” overstep their bounds. Doctors were likely to exaggerate potential dangers, overestimate their abilities, and intervene in people’s lives far more than appropriate. Even if their motives were entirely benign, expanding the role of doctors beyond the one outlined in the Torah would cause more harm than good.
Furthermore, if this expansion were permitted for the presumed sake of saving lives, it was inevitable that power-hungry profiteers and governments would use “public health” as a pretext to impose tyranny on the public.
The Chafetz Chaim politely reminded the doctors that their concern was appreciated, but their intention to intervene in yeshivos was unnecessary and out of bounds. He further warned them that crashing the boundaries and interfering with the Torah would be most dangerous for health – their own.
Unfortunately the scientific establishment has not heeded the Chafetz Chaim’s words, and he is no longer here to lead us in the face of the tyranny that has emerged. However, the appropriate response in the face of these challenges is clear from the example he set. We are not to allow “health experts” to encroach on Torah study or Jewish life at large, no matter what fears they express or promises they make.
The commandment to guard one’s health is most serious, but doctors do not have the right to impose their will on individuals or the public, even if they think they know best.
Those who were responsible for closing the shuls and yeshivos did not only touch the mountain, they committed grave sins. Those who issued fraudulent “rulings” that we must do whatever doctors decide for us corrupted the Torah, the penalty for which is losing one’s share in the world to come (Avos 3:11). It is unlikely that they can escape punishment after all the harm they caused, but if they repent they can salvage their souls.
The rest of us need to take the Chafetz Chaim’s words to heart and recalibrate our approach to “health experts”. Doctors work for us, as individuals, if we choose to employ their services. They do not control our lives, and no government has the right to ride on the backs of doctors to control our lives.
If they seek to encroach on the Torah and Jewish life – even with the best of intentions – we must inform them that this interference is unnecessary and unwelcome. If they insist on interfering, we must resist. If their intentions are malicious, we must recognize them as mortal enemies who come dressed as saviors.
Whoever touches the mountain will surely die, and those who touch the Torah, how much more so. May it be soon.