Spending time this summer in the picturesque town of Tannersville, New York, where Rav Hershel Schachter—a rosh yeshivah at Yeshiva University, senior posek of OU Kosher and a leading posek in the Modern Orthodox community—has spent many summers, I had the opportunity to ask him to share his reflections on how Covid-19 has impacted the halachic process. In our hour-long discussion, we talked about the nature of the halachic questions that have arisen since the onset of the pandemic, the volume of questions, and the new way in which piskei halachos are being disseminated.
Perhaps no adjective has been applied to Covid-19 more than the term “unprecedented.” In addition to the devastating toll the disease has unleashed in terms of deaths and illness, the challenges posed to every aspect of our religious lives came upon us without warning. From the closing of shuls, schools and yeshivos to challenges in every aspect of halachah—including observing yamim tovim such as Pesach and Rosh Hashanah, keeping the laws of mikveh, attending levayos and visiting shivah homes—our community found itself requiring answers to questions we never thought we would need to ask.
And yet, during these months, we have been blessed with the most extraordinary leadership. Klal Yisrael’s senior posekim have not merely given us spiritual and moral encouragement but have ruled in matters of halachah in ways few could ever have imagined. As a member of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), I myself have benefited—sometimes on a daily basis—from the halachic guidance of Rav Hershel Schachter, shlita, and Rav Mordechai Willig, shlita.
My career as a rabbi, first at Cambridge University in England and subsequently on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, has brought me into contact with many Jews who question the capacity of halachah to respond to modern-day challenges. In those very fear-filled weeks when the pandemic first struck our community, a few Orthodox voices were heard on social media and in print media questioning if the halachic system could adequately deal with the impending crisis. “The Orthodox rabbinate has proven to be out of touch with the people they serve and unresponsive to their needs,” opined one journalist.
And yet, those dire, if predictable, comments proved to be completely wrong. Instead, we observed once again that “lo alman Yisrael—we are not a leaderless generation.” We are blessed with posekim, great leaders who have spent decades immersed in learning and teaching Torah, who are able to grasp the essence of the situation and calmly and clearly issue guidance—halachic rulings that are, on the one hand, seemingly unprecedented but, on the other hand, rooted in our Torah and mesorah.
It was eye-opening listening to Rav Schachter’s insistence—an insistence I find astonishing—that from a halachic point of view, nothing in this Covid-19 situation is unprecedented! Only a posek who is familiar with every detail of the entire corpus of halachah, and experienced in answering questions of staggering complexity and significance on a daily basis, could possibly respond to the crisis we are experiencing.
Malcolm Gladwell speaks about the “10,000 hours” necessary to acquire the kind of expertise that prepares one to function in times of unique challenge. L’havdil, Chazal tell us, “You cannot compare one who has reviewed his learning 100 times to one who has reviewed 101 times.”
Like most people, I do not cope well under extreme stress. On occasions when I have to deal with serious situations—such as, God forbid, a she’eilah pertaining to a life-and-death situation—I find that my emotions take over and thinking objectively and rationally becomes extremely challenging. Rav Schachter is famously a very emotional person, as is often evidenced during his speeches. But only a posek of his caliber can set aside his own emotions to calmly and unflinchingly lead in times such as these.
At the end of our conversation, Rav Schachter stated that great rabbanim can be considered as if “married” to the Torah, as they are able to intuit the correct answer to a question without deliberation. “Does that apply to you?” I asked. “No, that doesn’t apply to me,” he responded adamantly. “I don’t have that yet.”
It was in the word “yet” that I found encouragement. For I was sitting the day before Tishah B’Av, in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, with one of the greatest posekim of our time, who insists that not only does Torah have the answers to guide us through every difficulty but that the future holds promise. It became clear to me that even when everything has changed, fundamentally nothing has changed. We have our Torah. We can delight in it, we can learn it, and we can take strength in it. In order to meet whatever challenge we may be called upon to face, we can never allow ourselves to stop growing. Baruch Hashem, we have leaders and posekim to guide us every step of the way.
Rabbi Shaul Robinson: Did the Rav ever imagine that he would one day have to pasken that all our shuls and yeshivos should close? How does a posek cope with unprecedented times and with getting hundreds of questions from all over the Jewish world?
Rabbi Hershel Schachter: Of course I never imagined this, but I don’t think I answer more questions now than I do during an ordinary week. In the course of a year, people ask me she’eilos all day long. Many of the she’eilos are very serious, some concerning life and death. I don’t think the recent she’eilos are more serious than those I normally get in the beis midrash.
RR: When did the Rav come to realize that the correct thing to do was to pasken that all the shuls should close?
RS: I was learning in the beis midrash on Shushan Purim, which was a Wednesday. The beis midrash was half empty, because many students had already gone home. Rabbi [Marc] Penner [dean of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary] came in at around 4 pm and suggested I ask my doctor whether I should stay or not [due to the news regarding the virus]—I’m close to eighty.
I didn’t take it so seriously and didn’t call my doctor until around 5 PM. The doctor recommended that I go home and stay home. So I took my tallis and tefillin home, and I stayed home. I left all my sefarim in the beis midrash—I didn’t realize it was going to be for months and months.
RR: I understand there was a conference call with many leading rabbanim, which took place in the days after Purim. At that point, the scale of the developing emergency and risk was not yet fully known. Most of the posekim, as well as medical experts, on the call felt that it was premature to close the shuls. The situation was serious, but it was not year clear that this was absolutely necessary. Rav Schachter disagreed. Why was it so clear to the Rav?
RS: At first the consensus was to keep the shuls open. One of the doctors said it had not reached the point of [pikuach nefesh]. But I felt it was safek sakanah (a potential danger). I said, “You don’t have to wait until it reaches the point of pikuach nefesh. If there’s a possibility that it can reach that point, then you’re not allowed to go to shul. [Right now] it’s a safek sakanah [and that’s enough to warrant closing the shuls].” Within twelve hours, everyone’s opinion changed.
Ein somchin al hanes. One should not rely on miracles. Obviously, the Ribbono Shel Olam answers our prayers, but still, when there is a sakanah, a dangerous situation, we have to protect ourselves.
It is said that Reb Velvel Soloveitchik remarked that he is not as great as his father Reb Chaim. Reb Chaim Soloveitchik had such keen insight with regard to political issues that he would be able to tell you what would happen in fifty years if you went to the right, and what would happen if you went to the left. “I don’t have that ability,” said Reb Velvel, “but I think I have a ma’alah [advantage] over my contemporaries—at least I can see what’s under my nose!”
I can see what’s under my nose. And it was clear to me that it was a safek sakanah.
RR: One of the great changes observed during the pandemic was an acceleration of the use of technology in the halachic process. Even before Covid, congregants had been e-mailing, texting and WhatsApping questions to their rabbis. But when a she’eilah needed to be asked of a posek, people most commonly sought an in-person meeting, or at least a phone call. The sheer number of she’eilos that communities have recently faced, along with the need for social distancing, meant that a different system was urgently needed.
I know, for example, that the RCA began holding regular Zoom meetings with senior posekim, where questions could be submitted in advance. How did the process of receiving and answering many hundreds of questions work?
RS: Rav Reuven Taragin [dean of overseas students at Yeshivat HaKotel] would send me a list of questions, or the RCA would interview me. The questions were e-mailed to me. I would [hand]write a response in Hebrew. My wife would scan my response—I don’t know how to use the Internet—and e-mail it back. [For the sake of clarity], a group of younger roshei yeshivah at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary became involved in editing the teshuvos and adding mareh mekomos. The teshuvos would then be translated into English and placed on a web site.
RR: Before Pesach we all thought this was going to last a few weeks, but it’s been going on for months and the she’eilos seem endless. I’m on the WhatsApp groups that were feeding she’eilos to Rav Schachter. Would the Rav say that these unprecedented times call for unprecedented responses?
RS: There weren’t that many unprecedented she’eilos. I took most of what I paskened [rulings] straight from the Gemara or the Shulchan Aruch, or halachic opinions I heard b’feirush (explicitly) from Rav [Joseph Ber] Soloveitchik. I was fortunate to have been in the Rav’s shiur for ten years, from 1957 to 1967. If you paid attention to the shiur, [you realized that] in many, many cases, the Rav was deriving the halachah from the Gemara and stating his halachic opinion.
RR: Rav Schachter has been teaching on Zoom multiple times a week, even during the summer. Who taught the Rav how to use Zoom? And does the Rav feel something is lost when teaching talmidim over Zoom?
RS: Every day I give shiur. Six days a week. I still don’t know how to use Zoom; my wife always sets it up for me. A lot is lost when teaching over Zoom.
RR: Is Rav Schachter concerned that some of the very novel rulings issued in these last few months might become the norm in certain communities even after the current crisis is over? For example, what if people want to hold Megillas Esther readings via Zoom on Purim every year? Or host a siyum Ta’anis Bechoros over Zoom? Or conduct mechiras chametz virtually? Isn’t there a danger in creating new halachic precedents? Is that something a posek has to take into account?
RS: There is a danger, but we have no choice. You can’t expect someone to go around reading the megillah for 1,000 people in their homes. B’she’as ha’dechak (in an extenuating circumstance), you have to rely on kulos (halachic leniencies). So this Purim we paskened that one is yotzei Megillah (fulfills the requirement to hear the Megillah) via telephone.
RR: Was there a havah amina (initial supposition) to say that we shouldn’t do Zoom Megillah readings, in order to prevent the ruling from being misapplied in the future, when people might consider it a new, viable option?
RS: No, I don’t think so. B’she’as ha’dechak we are meikil (rule leniently). There may be reason to worry that some might use the leniency when it’s not she’as ha’dechak, but we have no choice. If we want to be yotzei the mitzvah this year, what’s the alternative? Tell people not to fulfill mikra Megillah this year? I don’t think that’s right.
RR: In a recent shiur, Rav Schachter mentioned that sometimes a posek knows intuitively what the answer is to a she’eilah. Does this reflect Rav Schachter’s own approach?
RS: That does not apply to me. During his last few years, when Rav Soloveitchik was ill, he was not always able to discuss things at length. The head of the Kashrus Commission of the RCA called me up and asked me what the din is on a particular issue. I said, “I don’t know, I have to look it up in the Shulchan Aruch.” He said, “Before you look it up, what do you say?” I said, “I have to look it up.” [He persisted.] “But what’s your feeling before you look it up? The Rav used to say that he always has an intuitive feeling.” I said, “The Rav is the Rav. I’m not the Rav. I don’t have that feeling.”
Rabbi Shaul Robinson is rav of Lincoln Square Synagogue.