Letters | Nov. 4, 2020


Rabbi Smith falsely shouts ‘fire’

I was distressed but not surprised by many of the statements attributed to Rabbi Yitzchak Smith in “At a Long Island ‘Jews for Trump’ rally, Orthodox Jewry’s political contradictions take center stage” (Oct. 29).

Smith indicates that our religious freedom is under attack unless one is willing to stand in congregational prayer regardless of whether such prayer could cause sickness to others.

Since Smith is also a lawyer, he should be aware that the First Amendment right of freedom of religion is not absolute. Just as falsely shouting “fire” in a crowded theater does not undermine the First Amendment right of free speech, the right of freedom of religion is not diminished by various restrictions in exercising that right, as long as these restrictions are for the good of the citizenry as a whole.

Smith must be aware that promoting the health of the people is a fundamental precept of the Jewish religion. Participation in a service in a closed, crowded sanctuary would put individualswho subsequently came into contact with one of the congregants at that service at considerable risk of contracting COVID-19.


Finally, promoting the idea that COVID-19 testing is a government ploy to hurt Orthodox Jews is, plain and simple, meshugas.


Karaism on the Supreme Court

Regarding “Barrett is qualified” (Editorials, Oct. 22): Judge Amy Coney Barrett (following her rebbe, Antonin Scalia), as you note, “favors an originalist, textualist approach to statutory and constitutional interpretation.”

Jewish history has had its own encounter with such an approach, in the form of the anti-rabbinic movement known as Karaism.

According to originalism, the proper understanding of the wording in the Constitution hinges on examining what its phrases meant when they were written/ratified. Karaites, meanwhile, according to Wikipedia, “strive to adhere to the plain or most obvious meaning of the text … that would have been naturally understood by the ancient Israelites when the books of the Tanach were written.”

What Jewish history has borne out in experience is that originalism cannot be maintained because finding intent in another time horizon is humanly impossible. As the saying goes: “We see things not as they are, but as we are.”

More consequentially, among the rabbis, what existed was a structure of authority characterized by robust, multi-sourced give and take. Rabbinic Judaism viewed Torah as a living document, its written aspect (Tanach) requiring elucidation by an oral complement (Talmud).

For rabbinic exegesis, the watchword was critique. In Karaism, the watchword was deference.


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