Sunday 2 May 2021

334) Torah Institutions and the Truth




Rabbi Boruch Clinton is a regular contributor to Kotzk Blog. He is most qualified to write about Torah education and Torah institutions, having taught at both yeshiva and Bais Yakov schools for twenty years. He currently works as an information technology provider, authoring books and courses on cloud computing, technology security, server virtualization, data analytics, and Linux system administration.

 Do people running Orthodox communal institutions have a responsibility to the truth? By which I mean: is the active use of deception and misrepresentation reasonable when, say, you’re attempting to protect individual children and families from possible harms associated with school closures and pandemic-related shut downs?

The problem

Here’s what I’m talking about. During the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of Torah schools were faced with mandated closure alongside all the public and private schools in their city. Rather than shut down, these schools claimed to comply while, in fact, remaining effectively open in one form or another. They also issued vaguely worded communications to parents that, in plain English, suggested compliance while hinting to alternate guidance.

There is no question that remote schooling is, in nearly all cases, less effective, perhaps even disastrous. Nearly everyone agrees that children should be in school whenever possible. The issue I’ll be discussing here involves the use of deception to achieve that goal. Is such behavior within the bounds of accepted Torah tradition? And, from the perspective of a straightforward cost/benefit analysis, does it even make sense?

While I’ll be focusing on policy-based reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic, I have no interest in debating what should have been done from either a health or legal perspective. This is true for two reasons. One, because adding that focus would be unnecessarily distracting. And also because I’m strongly suspicious that no one – quite possibly including public health officials – has a particularly convincing claim to both academic authority and competence on the matter. What value could my own uninformed and incomplete thoughts possibly add to that debate?

Instead, I’m only going to explore the relative moral integrity of public policies undertaken by a number of Torah schools – regardless of whether those policies were or were not correct from a public health perspective. Is it, in other words, good public policy and accepted halachic practice for a school administration to openly and repeatedly lie to public officials, withhold important health-related information from parents and, perhaps worst of all, do it all in plain view of their students in a way that justifies the behavior?

I believe there’s a significant risk that such behavior will stunt the moral development of children exposed to it. It seems highly unlikely that the hoped-for (and unproven) benefits of dishonest efforts to engage at-risk children would outweigh the real and present dangers of public dishonesty.

You can present interpretations arguing that this kind of dishonesty isn’t really wrong from a “Torah” perspective – assuming those interpretations are correct and apply to every element of our case. But how many children, told that their Torah teachers and Torah authorities expect them to actively participate in obvious lies, will properly grasp the limits such arguments seek to apply? And, more to the point, such arguments rarely – if ever – match the Torah’s overarching requirement summed up by ועשית הישר והטוב (דברים ו:יח), or:

שיהא הן שלך צדק ולאו שלך צדק אמר אביי ההוא שלא ידבר אחד בפה ואחד בלב (בבא מציעא מט)


I should offer more detail about exactly what I’m discussing. On the one hand, as these daily and ongoing emails from one particular school to all parents suggest, the school seemed eager to comply in all ways:

If your son has any of the listed symptoms, you must go to (the public health website) and follow the directions given. The results can be downloaded into a pdf document, which must be emailed to (the school’s email address).

Similarly, this was sent in December, 2020:

In preparation for a safe reopening on Tuesday, please keep the following in mind:
Please do not send your son back to school if he is feeling unwell – no matter how minor the symptom. In such a situation, it is better to be machmir and keep him home even an extra day, than to potentially put his whole class at risk.
Any child who returns from outside the country, must quarantine for 14 days – no exceptions.

But there were also suggestions that a very different approach was being used for specific cases:

Due to a suspected covid case in the class, all talmidim in Rabbi X’s class will need to remain in quarantine for the next 14 days

What actually happened? In-school classes continued as normal. It was six days before the “suspicion” was confirmed by the sending of a letter directly from public health. And at least one of the students who was kept home by his parents received a phone call (intentionally bypassing the parents) from Rabbi X strongly encouraging the boy to attend school the next day. This, despite the fact that the student had, in fact, also just tested positive for COVID-19! As it turns out, a number of school families and related individuals suffered significant health challenges as a result of that and similar events.

Here’s one more example:

Following the order from Public Health, our School is closed. As instituted last week, religious services continue in the morning for any interested talmidim. Should your son wish to attend, we remind you that he does not require his knapsack. All food items should be sent in a disposable bag.

Which could be translated: “Following the order from Public Health, our School is closed. But it’s not really closed. You can still send your sons for ‘religious services.’ But he should not bring a knapsack as that would arouse suspicions.”

Not enough for you? Here’s a picture taken of a welcome sign on the front door of a second school in that same community. Does any Jew reading this actually believe that elementary-aged boys are spending five hours deep in “prayer for times of crisis”? How do the boys walking through process anything they’ve ever been taught about honesty when faced with this?

Is the problem universal?

I should note that, even within that Torah community there are institutions that forcefully disagree with the deception and who have behaved with the greatest integrity throughout the long ordeal.

However, I’ve written elsewhere about the use of deception in 19th Century halachic literature and there may be some interesting parallels to explore further. But the tendency was far from universally accepted. The objections of the Maharitz Chiyus quoted there make that clear.

And, of course, there is no shortage of contemporary Jews who stand up for full honesty. Take this passage – relating to acts of financial dishonesty in the interest of increased Torah studies – from a recently (and anonymously) published online book:

“And is it really true that there’s no alternative? Is dealing with the problem of insufficient funds really such a mystery? Of course Klal Yisrael needs Torah leaders and of course it takes years of uninterrupted learning to build such leaders. But do you really have so little faith in God that you don’t believe He can provide for His future leaders without them suffocating their precious souls beneath layers of filthy lies and deceit?”

The late Rabbi Shimon Schwab was also quoted in that chapter (although in the context of serious financial crime).

“To defraud and exploit our fellowmen, Jew or gentile, to conspire, to betray the government, to associate with the underworld elements all these are hideous crimes by themselves. Yet to the outrage committed there is added another dimension, namely the profanation of the Divine Name.”

Have these Torah schools fulfilled their mandates by graduating students with a higher tolerance for deceit? Perhaps they were successful in reaching some at-risk children as a result of their lies, perhaps not. But have they increased kiddush shem shomayim? I guess only HaShem Himself has a definitive answer.

But, as Torah-educated and observant Jews, we certainly have a right to an opinion. And, as long as the detailed methodologies, big-picture goals, and motivations of those who run our kids’ schools remain hidden, we have no alternative but to choose sides.

There’s something else. Not everyone associated with these schools seemed focused on the vulnerable in their population. Some in leadership positions justified their dishonesty by pointing to incremental increases in Torah learning. But have these schools even demonstrated a modest concern for the value of children learning Torah? Well, in one case at least, a school simply ignored the needs of a boy whose parents, wishing to avoid chillul HaShem, kept him home. For weeks they didn’t offer him even telephone access to the ongoing morning classes. This suggests that talmud Torah isn’t actually a high priority for that school.

Knowledge of what’s going on has spread far beyond the walls of those schools. How does that impact the community’s attachment to truth?

And is it really working? Once a deception reaches a certain scale – involving many hundreds of individuals – it would seem to me that the conflicting evidence scattered about becomes too heavy to control. Are we sure there are still any important players (in both Jewish and general communities) who are still out of the loop?

The last time this happened…

As a wise (and unidentified) man once said, “history never repeats itself, but it often rhymes.”

The Cantonist crisis that tormented the Jews of Russia nearly two hundred years ago might be a case in point. Needing to improve his army’s capacity – and faced with a large population of Jews he despised – Tsar Nicholas I expanded the recruitment for his military schools (cantons) to include Jews.

But the new law treated the Jews differently from anyone else. Children as young as ten years old were, for instance, exposed to the draft. And their terms of service extended to 25 years. Most significantly, responsibility for selecting which children were to be drafted rested not with the government or army, but with individual Jewish communities.

Nicholas was obviously more interested in tearing Jewish children away from Judaism than in a stronger military. But he also chanced upon a clever way to undermine the foundations of Jewish community life. Think about it: how was a community supposed to choose which boys were to be taken from their families – likely never to return – and which allowed to live normal lives? But choose they must.

No matter how they decided, some people would be hurt in the most painful way possible. It’s safe to assume that all parents energetically fought to exempt their children and ingenious – and often criminal and violent – efforts were used. As Rabbi Yakov Lifschitz wrote in Zichron Yakov, his memoir of his years working with the likes of R’ Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor and R’ Yisrael Salanter, no one who didn’t live through it has the right to judge the many awful things done during those sad years.

The chaos and raw emotional scars left by the horrors of the Cantonist years had a long-term impact on all Russian Jews. The upheaval provided ammunition for countless thousands of Jews seeking to justify their abandonment of Judaism. Anti-religious writers in later decades portrayed communal rabbis and Judaism itself as complicit in the kidnapping of Jewish children to fill draft quotas. If Jewish leaders could contribute to such suffering, those writers reasoned, how much value did Judaism itself have?

In fact, wrote Rabbi Lifschitz, while many individuals indeed acted with unspeakable cruelty and no one escaped the period without some guilt, the cunning Russian policy was the real villain of the story. There was no just and humane way to respond. As a group (with some exceptions) the rabbis were not to blame and nor was Judaism. But that didn’t stop the tsunami of defection from our faith through the rest of the 19th Century and beyond.

And this time?

What does all this have to do with COVID-19? By any rational account, our governments – while arguably incompetent – were not the enemy here. Only people whose ignorance of history is complete could refer to laws and rules intended to protect us as “שעת השמד”. No, the enemy here was the disease. But it nevertheless left us with impossible choices and no obvious guidance.

Perhaps it’s no one’s fault and perhaps no one could have done better, but thousands of angry and cynical Torah school parents will forever associate the dishonesty we’ve seen with the rabbis who lead those schools and, worse, with the Torah that they teach. What destruction will that leave and how will people think about it after another 200 years?



  1. It would've been nicer if this very pleasant and interesting blog would've stayed out of politics.

    But there is plenty of precedent in Jewish history of us contravening governmental edits when it interferes with Torah life, when when we are not the targets. (as recent as the Metzitzah story).

    It's actually important to reach the next generation that we should follow the law, as well as participate in the long American (and Jewish) tradition of civil disobedience.

    And yes, it's pretty to everyone by now that much of the shutdown policy was politics and theatrics, deserving much contempt.

  2. Indeed

    Covid-19 is a fraud, a hoax

    There is no scientific basis for quarantine of healthy people

    The vaccine is an agenda of global genocide by the elite cabal with literally satanic intentions