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Schools [yeshivas] still closed [in Israel]? Something’s fishy…

Give me liberty, or give me death.

Patrick Henry, 1775

There is no one “liberated” but the one who studies Torah.

Ethics of the Fathers (ch. 6), circa 200 C.E.

“Until it’s safe” means never.

Dennis Prager, May 21, 2020

With the news of coronavirus cases in dramatic decline, in some Jewish communities now almost entirely non-existent, the question now arises –

What’s with the yeshivas? Are they to be closed forever? It’s like, how long can we force our kids to stare at a screen for eight hours a day? We all know that the virtual school idea hasn’t really worked out – something’s missing. To say the least.

Alternatively, no one wants to risk their children’s lives in order to be in school (although – after many weeks of lockdown with their beloved kids – some would. And the numbers are growing daily).

What to do? To learn, or not to learn (Prince Hamlet might have asked, had he too been trying to keep his sanity whilst sheltering in place) – that is the question.

And so, while many Jewish communities search for ideas as to when and how to open the schools, I would humbly like to suggest mine. I propose the Rabbi Akiva approach.

But as an introduction, I first wanted to substantiate the outlandish title of this article. What is fishy about our schools, and what is the significance of their closure?

Alas – schools and fish have a lot in common, in fact. You probably know that fish traditionally swim in “schools.” But what you may not have known, is that there is, in fact, Talmudic precedent for the fish/school correlation:[1]

Once, the Roman government issued a decree banning Jews from studying Torah. Papus ben Yehuda came and found Rabbi Akiva, who was convening assemblies in public and engaging in Torah study.

He said to him, “Akiva, are you not afraid of the government?”

Basically, Rabbi Akiva rejected the home-schooling option, and felt the need to engage in group learning in a public setting, for some inexplicable reason, while his counterpart, Papus ben Yehuda, a wise man and fellow Talmudist with seemingly good intentions and communal clout, attempted to dissuade him; the government’s laws must be obeyed!

Rabbi Akiva replied, “I shall give you a parable. To what can this be compared? To a fox that was walking by a river. He saw fish that were banding together [in order to swim rapidly] from place to place. He said to them, ‘Why do you run away?’

“They answered him, ‘Because of the traps that man brings upon us.’

“He said to them, ‘Would you like to come up upon the dry land, and we shall live together, I and you, just as my forefathers dwelt with your forefathers?’”

The fox, like Papus, reasoned that the possibility of the fish being caught by the fishery authorities presented a situation of endangerment to life, prompting a call for pikuach nefesh,[2] which overshadows the advantages of the fish remaining in their underwater environment.

“The fish said to him, ‘You are the one whom they call the cleverest of the animals? You are not clever; rather, you are a fool! If in the place of our vitality [the water], we are afraid [for our lives], then in the place of our death [i.e. outside of the water], all the more so!’

“We too [concluded Rabbi Akiva] – now, as we sit and occupy ourselves with Torah study, about which it is written,[3] ‘For it is your life and the length of your days,’ we fear for our lives to this extent; if we proceed to sit idle from its study [the abandonment of which is the habitat that causes our death], all the more so!”

In other words, however “wise” it may have seemed to halt the study of Torah in the name of compliance with governmental decrees, even when the cessation was promoted as pikuach nefesh – Rabbi Akiva felt otherwise.

Just as a fish, always on the run for its survival, would never entertain the silly and suicidal notion of leaving the water, the place of its vitality, so too should the “wandering Jew,” despite his trials and tribulations, never leave the environment of Torah study.

Although the general point of this familiar lesson is well-taken, I must admit that one particular detail is somewhat bewildering:

Why did Rabbi Akiva insist on “convening assemblies,” organizing group study? Fish need water to live – water representing Torah – but not socialization. Just as a single or a few fish can live alone in the water, without convening in maritime assemblies, so too, couldn’t this venerable sage study Torah in private, with himself and his closest associates?

The insistence on public sessions seems a little fishy, no?

But the plot thickens.

Classical commentaries note that Rabbi Akiva’s insistence on communal learning was also indicated and illustrated in his parable, for the fish, too, weren’t merely on the go, they were congregating – “banding together” from place to place![4]

So I tried to understand this perplexing allegorical detail as well. Why couldn’t the fish do the right thing and practice proper social distancing laws, and why did Rabbi Akiva need to simulate this particular detail of the parable and its seafaring protagonists’ bizarre behavior – one that seemingly fails to make any meaningful contribution to their submerged survival?

After a little research, I was astonished to find out that quite the contrary – schooling enables fish to move through the water more efficiently and helps them avoid predators! I.e. their swimming in unison and in close proximity of their peers is essential to their very survival![5]

So if fish need not only to live in water but to “school” through their marine environment – pointed out the famed tanna, upon whose teachings the entire Talmud is based – then so do Jews! It’s not enough to be immersed in Torah on one’s own – learning needs to be a communal effort!

The profundity of this lesson cannot be emphasized enough.

To Jews, schooling is not only the transfer of information – it’s a way of life.

The student, by joining with other students and studying with a live rebbie, maggid shiur, or morah, is infused with life and enthusiasm in serving his or her Creator. The cheder and yeshiva provide for an environment of Divinity and love for Torah – kedusha is in the air, so to speak – and studying with his or her peers provides for an element of social immersion and peer pressure that is crucial to the student’s development, success, and yiras shamayim!

The domestic setting with virtual, on-line classes is not an alternative. A single fish might think he can Zoom through the water on his own, but it is ill-advised, as expressed above. And a Jewish student, sentenced to solitude by the powers that be, is no different. Chained to a device throughout his or her scholastic day, the once happy and carefree child, now a homebound, playground-deprived Zoom participant, will not likely succeed in “swimming” effectively and navigating correctly through the “sea” of genuine Jewish learning, the yam hatalmud – let alone avoid the traps that lurk ahead, cast by the nasty yetzer hara throughout the student’s adolescence and adulthood.[6] The child needs to be in yeshiva; this is the best way, or I should say the only way, to keep him on track!

Such is the human condition; and more significantly, the Jewish condition. The “banding together” effect, spiritually, academically, and practically, does not transfer well over the world wide web. Just as fish need to “school” for their very survival, so do we Jews. And it was to this end that Rabbi Akiva not only risked, but gave up his life – for the sake of Jewish schooling!

One might, at this point, be tempted to raise the following question:

Why and how did this accomplished and immortal sage risk his life for studying Torah altogether, let alone public assemblies thereof, when such sacrifice is not indicated as one of the items that mandate mesiras nefesh?[7]

Commentaries suggest that Rabbi Akiva deemed the Roman occupation as a sha’as hash’mad, a time of a decree against Judaism, in which it is incumbent upon a Jew to sacrifice his life for even a minor Jewish custom like ark’sa d’misani (a shoe-string color on his footwear). Also, the Romans’ insistence in prohibiting public study put Rabbi Akiva’s misdemeanors against the dictatorship into the category of public martyrdom, parrhesia, which engendered the conditions for a kiddush Hashem, an obligatory opportunity for the sage to sanctify the name of G-d.[8]

(Papus ben Yehuda, alternatively, argued that the fact that the government had banned only public Torah study reduced the decree to one that did not warrant mesiras nefesh, and hence, warned Rabbi Akiva to desist).[9]

The above explanations are not necessarily in line with the accepted Halacha, that martyrdom is only indicated, even when in public or during a time of shmad, when the decree attempts to coerce a Jew to violate a negative commandment, whereas Torah study is merely a positive commandment.

Nonetheless, in lieu of the above, some deduce from Rabbi Akiva’s exemplary behavior as indicated in this very tale that public Torah study, in reference to the laws of kidush Hashem, is not limited to the mere status of a positive mitzva, for it is vital to and inclusive of all mitzvos, and is considered the very life and existence of the Jewish People, ki heim chayeinu v’orech yameinu, “our life and the length of our days”![10]

In any case, no one would dare challenge Rabbi Akiva’s righteousness in respect to this somewhat questionable act of perhaps unjustified mesiras nefesh, for permission is certainly granted for the one who chooses to go beyond the letter of the law, and sacrifice his life even for the performance of a positive commandment.[11] And for a person of distinction, a chasid, i.e. a pious and G-d fearing individual, there is even more of a reason to warrant such behavior.[12] Shulchan Aruch dictates that “im hasha’ah tzricha likach,” if the time necessitates such an act of martyrdom – it is certainly any Jew’s prerogative to act accordingly.[13]

Noteworthy, however, was not only Rabbi Akiva’s insistence on sacrificing his life in order to study Torah publicly, but that he even called his critic, a sage in his own right and quoted in the Mishna, a “fool” for thinking otherwise!

And alas, Papus himself ultimately conceded, as the Talmud concludes:

Not a few days passed until they seized Rabbi Akiva and incarcerated him in prison, and seized Papus ben Yehuda and incarcerated him alongside him.

Rabbi Akiva said to him, “Papus, who brought you here?”

Papus replied:

“Fortunate are you, Rabbi Akiva, for you were arrested on the charge of engaging in Torah study. Woe unto Papus who was seized on the charge of engaging in idle matters.”

Although Papus himself was also incarcerated and executed as a martyr for the Jewish People,[14] Rabbi Akiva’s mesiras nefesh was far greater, since it was for the promotion of public Torah study. Compared to Torah study, all other causes, even trying to save Jews from the Roman’s hands, is considered “dvarim biteilim,” idle matters!

***

Dear friends, fellow parents, educators, and administrators:

The state government’s decrees against yeshivas are not motivated purely by the tenet of pikuach nefesh – for parks, beaches, restaurants, malls, airplane flights, are all open for business. The government bars group Torah study and Jewish schools because it deems them as non-essentials. Sadly, many of our rabbis and communal leaders have not cried out and condemned the said governmental decisions and judgments as immoral and antireligious. They, like their predecessor Papus ben Yehuda, continue to caution us to adhere to all governmental restrictions against our faith, our right to gather in prayer, and our G-d-given right to provide our children with a religious education. They fail to realize that Rabbi Akiva, and many scores, hundreds, thousands, if not millions of Jews throughout history, have given up their very lives for the sake of Jewish religious schooling!

So, while the point of my essay is not to solicit you to risk your lives (especially at this time and in our communities, when there have been no cases of corona for many weeks), I ask you the following question:

Is public Torah study, at the very least, not an essential to our faith, and moreover, to our very existence?

I humbly demand that the yeshivas open. Immediately.

—————

[1] Brachos 61b

[2] Saving a life

[3] Devarim 30:20

[4] Chidushei Aggados of the “Maharsha” – Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer Aidels

[5] wikipedia.org, “Shoaling and schooling”

[6] In fact, internet use only augments, and exponentially so, the child’s exposure to the above-mentioned “traps,” as cautioned by most contemporary Halachic authorities.

[7] The three cardinal sins – idolatry, adultery, or murder.

[8] Chidushei Aggados

[9] Ben Yehoyada, famous commentary of Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Bagdad, a.k.a “the Ben Ish Chai,”

[10] Birchos Yitzchok. See also Birchas Shmuel (in the introduction to Vol. 4).

[11] Tosofos D.H. Yachol, Avoda Zara 27b

[12] Nimukei Yosef Ibid.

[13] Siman 157 sif 1, Rama

[14] Imrei Noam, Rabbi Eliahu of Vilna (the Gr”a)

Original: Rabbi Daniel Green – Arutz Sheva