Mount Meron and Metaphysics

Metaphysics, or abstract theory beyond human rationality, is the last refuge for religious reactionaries. It is, by definition, impossible to argue with them on a rational basis. That is why no argument can convince the vast majority of Haredim, and most certainly their leaders, that the tragedy that led to the death of 45 people and the injuries of hundreds at Mt. Meron was entirely avoidable.

That is why there cannot be a rejoinder to the argument that the 93-year-old Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, a leading authority in Israel’s Ashkenazi Haredi community, reportedly put forward to explain the tragedy. Rabbi Yitzhak Shaul, a son of the aged rabbi, issued a letter quoting his father that there could be no explaining God’s way. The disaster was a “decree from Heaven.” Nevertheless, reported R. Yitzhak Shaul, his father felt that there were ways to “rectify” the situation.

In particular, R. Kanievsky reportedly stated repeatedly that it was critical to “strengthen oneself in Torah and in the assiduous study of Torah.” Moreover, R. Yitzhak Shaul related, “women should intensify their modesty.” Additionally, his father repeated several times that people were not punctilious with respect to the laws prescribing the proper way to ritually wash hands prior to meals.

Finally, R. Kanievsky reportedly emphasized the importance of concentrating when uttering blessings so as to “feel God’s immanence.” R. Yitzhak Shaul then offered citations to buttress his father’s argument. In particular, he referenced a statement in the fourteenth century code (colloquially called “the Tur”) by Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher, whose work provided the structure upon which Rabbi Yosef Karo based his far better known code of Jewish Law, the Shulhan Aruch. R. Yaakov wrote that the Rabbinic requirement to utter one hundred blessings each day derived from the urgent need to put an end to the plague, reported in Samuel II, that was causing the death of 100 people each day.

Leaving aside the fact that the Tur’s statement is merely aggadic, the link to the deaths in Meron is nothing more than a non sequitur. Yet by offering a metaphysical “explanation” to the tragedy, the two Rabbis Kanievsky deflected blame from where it should be placed.

By offering a metaphysical “explanation” to the tragedy, the two Rabbis Kanievsky deflected blame from where it should be placed.

Blame belongs at the feet of a religious leadership that did not dissuade its Haredi followers from endangering the lives of celebrants on Lag Ba’Omer, on Haredi politicians, who pressed for lifting any limits on the numbers permitted on Mt. Meron, and on the cynical prime minister who cared more about Haredi votes than Haredi lives.

This is not the first tragedy to take place at Meron. A century ago on Lag Ba’Omer night (May 15, 1911), a balcony railing at Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s Meron gravesite collapsed, killing eleven people and injuring dozens of others. The rabbis of the earlier time asserted that the tragedy was result of men and women comingling at Meron — similar to the  explanation the Rabbis Kanievsky offered.

Metaphysics are an easy way for the Haredi world to avoid coming to terms with its own shortcomings. In this case the consequences were nothing less than fatal. Haredim love to speak about “cheshbon hanefesh,” analyzing and evaluating one’s behavior. It is time they took their advice seriously — about themselves, their leaders and their politicians — and recognize that when tragedies occur due to their own indifference, cynicism or simply a desire not to follow the State of Israel’s rules, the blame lies with no one other than themselves.

Dov S. Zakheim was U.S. Under Secretary of Defense (2001-2004) and Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (1985-87). He writes and speaks on issues relating to U.S. National Security, the Middle East, Halacha and Jewish History. His most recent book is “Nehemiah: Statesman and Sage.”


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