This past erev Shabbat, 56 roshei yeshiva and rabbanim of Far Rockaway and the Five Towns issued a statement that public minyanim should not be conducted during the present crisis. It is my understanding that there were a number of these public minyanim this past Shabbat. I refer to the individuals participating in these minyanim as SHaCHaR — Shotim, Chot’im, Rodfim/Rotzchim.
When will these individuals cease their madness?
Kohelet 10:8 states “U’foretz gader yish’chenu nachash,” on which Sifrei Ekev (11:21) comments that one who transgresses the rulings of the sages will eventually suffer tragedy.
Will it take the fulfillment of this pasuk, chas v’shalom, to convince these individuals to stop?
With great sadness for our brethren who have suffered indescribable pain and suffering, and with tefillot for a speedy end to this plague.
Editor’s note: This letter was originally published April 28
I have found that two approaches exist among those who, in these troubled times, oppose backyard or porch minyanim. Both approaches, one extreme and one more reasoned, were reflected in your May 1 issue, while minyan supporters have gotten short shrift. I seek to bridge this communication breakdown.
In a vituperative letter, Charles Meisels writes that men who participate in these minyanim are “fools, sinners, pursuers, and killers.” He rambles on, misapplying to these valiant men a verse in Koheles to the effect that one who transgresses the words of the sages should be bitten by a snake!
Meisels is not alone; sadly, he is joined by individuals who have the temerity to disrupt outdoor minyanim. To Meisels and his ilk, I ask: Who appointed you judge? Have you personally observed these minyanim and determined that they do not meet the social distancing guidelines? Are you aware that highly regarded rabbanim are among the people who daven in these minyanim? Have you expended equivalent time and energy scolding men and women walking on the boardwalk? Have you blocked housekeepers from entering the homes where they are employed? Meisels owes an apology to those who safely pray in outdoor minyanim.
Larry Gordon, in his article, does not in any way write as harshly. Instead, he endeavors to advance a logical basis for both sides of the debate, while firmly landing with the position of those opposing the minyanim. Yet Gordon too is wrong in insisting that “pro” minyaners are “selfish,” interested only in preserving what I will call a “minyan streak.”
Gordon seems to think that the prime argument of the “pro” position is by deduction: that these minyanim are safer than, say, shopping in a supermarket. The reasoning goes: “If shoppers can do it, why can’t daveners?” In response, he explains that shopping is a necessity, while davening with a minyan is not.
First, he is wrong in describing in-person shopping as essential. A system could be set up (and indeed, it has been done successfully for Friday shopping) whereby our stores arrange a pickup system that is way safer than having people physically shop in-store. The “essential” part of personal shopping is that most of us (I include myself) prefer to touch and feel the goods we buy, especially fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, and fish. We are spoiled; but being spoiled should not override safety.
Second, davening with a minyan is absolutely a necessity and must not cavalierly be trampled underfoot. The tefillah of a quorum is qualitatively different than private prayer. Our sages teach that when one davens with a minyan, his tefillah, even if somehow deficient, merges with the prayers of his fellow mispallelim and is imbued with enhanced sanctity. Simply put, the tefillah song does not remain the same when it emanates from a minyan. While I have sometimes felt like a fool in the rain, withstanding cold, wet, and windy weather, I take satisfaction in the power of tefillos uttered even in the most difficult circumstances.
Actually, Gordon is engaging in a straw man argument. It is not true that the pro position is sourced in a deductive “we are better than the shoppers” logic. The pro position is rooted in several ironclad principles. First, we believe that it is infinitely better to pray in a minyan than alone. Second, we fully concur that “chamira sakanta mei’issura,” that safety overrides the requirement to have a quorum. If an outdoor minyan is situated with adequate social distancing, the safety issue does not come into play.
I am dazed and confused at the zeal with which some minyan opponents have approached this matter. (I refer not to the rabbanim who oppose these minyanim; they clearly deliberated extensively before coming to their conclusion. I am referring to laypeople such as Charles Meisels.) When faced with a conundrum, we have two options: we can find a way to accomplish the task, or we can take the easy way out and conclude that the task is not doable. When there is such zeal for the latter approach, I wonder if there is not an underlying motive, a motive that finds pleasure in rationalizing the right not to perform a mitzvah. I hope I am wrong, but I fear that I am right.
Moreover, what will be the long-term effect upon men who cease to attend minyan for a protracted period? I am concerned that as people become accustomed to davening alone, they may lose their regard for tefillah b’tzibbur. It takes 30 days to form or break a habit, and we are way past the 30-day mark. I fear that a poor habit is being formed. (I was astonished when a highly respected rav told me that davening alone was actually not so bad!)
What do “pro” minyaners say regarding the strong “anti” position of our rabbanim? Let me be absolutely clear: I am close with many of these rabbanim. I love and respect them. However, I am not required to agree with them, especially when other rabbanim support safe outdoor minyanim. The most recent rabbinic letter was signed by almost 60 rabbanim. Yet several esteemed rabbanim did not sign. I also have heard that some rabbanim signed due to political or financial coercion (very sad, if true). Further, there are esteemed world-class poskim who have endorsed outdoor minyanim.
Regardless, even if every neighborhood rav had signed this and previous letters, they have no authority to deem safe outdoor minyanim “unauthorized,” as the most recent letter declared. Rabbanim do have the right to close their synagogues; it is not within their purview to forbid minyanim that are located away from synagogue grounds. There is no halachic or hashkafic requirement to obey the rabbanim; they are not a Sanhedrin, to which, as the Rambam states, all must adhere. Even the Sefer HaChinuch’s somewhat broader application of the mitzvah not to deviate from the words of the chachamim does not bear on our case.
As for those individuals who have taken it upon themselves to ask police to break up outdoor minyanim, I suggest they read carefully the eleventh blessing in the Shemoneh Esreh, in which we beseech G-d: “Do not be a source of hope to the informers.”
It is not within my province to criticize the men who do not participate in outdoor minyanim. I fully respect their decision to heed the guidance they have been given. The “pro” side deserves the same courtesy. In my humble opinion, these minyan-goers provide invaluable spiritual support for the world at this critical juncture, and we give no quarter in this debate. Still, we fervently hope that all our prayers, whether together or apart, ascend the stairway to heaven.
For Klal Yisrael, there is nothing worse than sinas chinam, baseless hatred. Included is misguided kana’aus, zealotry. This is not a quality in which we should delight. I ask both sides of this debate to be respectful. When Hashem sees that we get along, despite our differences, He doubtless will hurry a cure for COVID-19. He will return us to our houses of holy prayer. Even more, He will certainly hurry the coming of Mashiach, at which time we will experience a world of peace and prosperity. I know that you, your readers, and even Charles Meisels join me in this prayer.
As I finished writing this piece, I received an email from one of our shuls, indicating a relaxation of the guidelines. I am pleased by this turn of events, and I hope that we will soon see the reopening of our treasured shuls.
Far Rockaway, NY
Editor: The Minyan Debate
I find it interesting that you specifically excluded Crown Heights from your list of places. Perhaps it was bias or something else.
I find it to be an extraordinary sense of hubris for any of the “rabbis” to decide for the klal notwithstanding the fact that someone’s individual rav may have paskened otherwise. When did we replace asei l’cha rav and eilu v’eilu divrei Elokim chaim with written letters signed by many rabbanim in the neighborhood? I don’t believe that many of the rabbanim who signed the letter read and fully digested the subject matter or that such widespread letters are apropos for Torah observant Jews. Let each shul’s rav pasken for that kehillah and follow age-old Jewish traditions.
To say that someone whose rav paskened that they can partake in an outdoor fully socially distanced minyan is a rodef or worse is anathema to Yiddishkeit. For that matter, I would like to know what is wrong if people have a minyan that meets all social distancing requirements. The only answer these “rabbanim” say is that we can’t trust the klal to actually follow those rules. This is the reason to preclude minyan from anyone? Does this make any sense? We give up the ability to daven with a minyan because the rabbanim say we can’t be trusted?
There are minyanim operating in the neighborhood. Why wouldn’t the rabbanim get together and set up gabbaim to ensure social distancing requirements are followed and davening can be done outdoors while meeting these requirements. Once the gabbaim set up the minyanim and limit the number of people they will continue to allow people who follow the rules. If they do not follow the rules, they are not welcome and are shown the door (so to speak) and told not to come and daven at this minyan.
There are definitely less draconian measures that should be taken and allow us to daven with minyanim. It may require actual work and real responsibility but there are many who will rise to the occasion. I would note that people who are in the older age brackets (most likely to die from possible exposure) or are immunocompromised should not join these minyanim. However if they have nice neighbors, perhaps they will daven near those homes and allow them to partake in the minyan from the ezras nashim (in their individual homes).