Well, the world has certainly changed, and in a hurry.
It wasn’t that long ago that we were overwhelmed with a variety of crises – the rise in violent attacks against Jews in America and Europe; the opioid epidemic that was sweeping the nation and devastating large swaths of the country; and our vaping teenagers, a plague that necessitated government investigations, crackdowns and restrictions. These troubles dominated our thinking before we had ever heard the term “social distancing.” That doesn’t even mention the omnipresent threat of global warming that was to end the planet in a decade or so unless, among other things, single-use plastic bags was banned from all stores. All that seems not months but years ago, and all it took to drive them from the headlines was a once-in-a-century pandemic.
For all those who claim to have seen the corona virus coming, I wish they would have told me right before. Of course no one knew, even if there are always people predicting catastrophes. The problem is that there are always more people predicting catastrophes than there are catastrophes. When the one person is right, he is lauded for his genius and prescience. When the multitudes are wrong, no one pays attention to them (remember the looking disaster of Y2K?). It reminded me of the old economists’ joke, that economists have accurately predicted twelve out of the last five recessions. That’s about right.
Governments’ response, both federal and state, will be the subject of much deliberation and recrimination, little of it objective or honest. There is a reason why there is no template for dealing with the unprecedented; that is because it is unprecedented. To have too few ventilators available in such a disaster is a criticism that would be warranted only if I told you that next year hundreds of thousands of dialysis machines will be needed, so spend the money now, and suffer the consequences. It is simply unpredictable, and that calls for emergency measures. Every politician would love to repair the bridge the day before it collapses. To do it too early seems like a waste of money, too late is too late. Sadly, it is usually difficult to time it so precisely. But the outsourcing of pharmaceutical production to China is a national travesty, one born of the multiple regulations and union requirements that render manufacturing in America less than cost effective. That has to be solved because it is unhealthy (both literally and figuratively) to be dependent for our vital medicines on the Chinese whose way of life, of doing business, of governance, and moral notions so differ from ours.
Of more interest is the religious response. The good news is that the Jewish community for the most part adapted quite well to the most Draconian restrictions imaginable. To me it is unthinkable to have spent a month outside of shul, davening alone. For American Jews, whose spiritual lives are often centered on the shul, to be robbed of that daily experience could be crushing, if not for the fact that we are historically a nation of adapters. The believing Jew sees G-d’s hand in everything. In a profound way, the destruction of the Bet Hamikdash deprived of the opportunity to fulfill many mitzvot. We therefore serve G-d not by building private altars but by abstaining from certain otherwise obligatory acts. It is the same in the current environment; our divine service is characterized by what we cannot do even if we want to do it. Fortunately, our Sages anticipated this predicament: “Rav Assi said: ‘Even if a person thought to perform a mitzvah but was unable to do so due to exigent circumstances, Scripture construes it as if he performed it’” (Kiddushin 40a). The sense of loss and feeling of dislocation is great but that is where we are. The mitzvah of saving lives and avoiding harm to oneself or others takes precedence over public prayer and learning.
Not every Jewish community was quick to get with the program with the resultant increase in illness, death and suffering in those communities both in Israel and in America. Some held out for a few days, some a few weeks, and I suppose there are still some recalcitrants even today. One rabbi claimed that only G-d would tell him when to close his shul (I assume he merited a divine communication, because he was closed the next day.) Another rabbi quoted that Talmudic statement (Shabbat 119b) that “the world only endures because of the breath of children studying Torah” – so the closing of yeshivot endangers us rather than protects us. Still another decried the loss of pubic prayer, since “the world exists due to the kedusha in U’va l’tzion and the response in Kaddish after public Torah learning” (Sotah 49a).
Those are all true statements, of course, but certainly homiletical, and neither will prevail in halachic discourse over the requisites of pikuach nefesh, the saving of lives. For sure, their emotions and desires were in a holy place, but why did they not comply and continue to endanger their communities?
I found it fascinating that a similar dynamic played out among Catholics. The Wall Street Journal reported on this last week (April 6) and the headline says it all: “As Coronavirus Halts Masses, Conservative Catholics Push Back.” These Catholics argued that “believers need the church now more than ever.” Cardinal Burke opined that just as people need food and medicine and take care not to spread the virus in the process, “so also we must be able to pray in our churches and chapels…and engage in acts of public prayer and devotion.” Rusty Reno, the noted Catholic writer, stated that “in a time of pandemic – a time when Satan whips up in us all fears of isolation, abandonment and death, churches must not join the stampede of fear.”
It is impossible to know whether here Catholics followed the Jews, Jews followed the Catholics or both came to their conclusions on their own. But it is an intriguing question: why is that (for lack of a better term) those religious groups who self-define as the most “conservative,” or “traditional,” or “fundamentalist,” or “ultra…” of one sort or another, insisted on maintaining spiritual business as usual despite the dangers extant – even as the rest of the society effectively shut down?
There are many possible answers (a commitment that exceeds that of others, not being one of them) but here I suggest two, one general and one specific.
The first is the sheer magnitude of the disruption to our lives that was not only unforeseen but also still is, in a literal sense, incredible. It is simply beyond belief, something that the entire planet is experiencing that no one had ever experienced before –a global pandemic that necessitates the shutdown of economies and social institutions. It is easy to dismiss such a calamity as real – even after its effects are upon us. There lurks in the mind the suspicion that “this can’t really be happening.” If so, finding comfort and refuge in our normal spiritual lives is reassuring and even more imperative notwithstanding the “dangers” that are not fully internalized.
The second speaks to us, as I cannot address the Catholic claims. Halacha is a very balanced and delicate ecosystem. For sure, there is a scale of hierarchies as there are gradations of holiness and importance in the mitzvot. The more “fundamentalist” a group is, the more likely they are to attach greater significance to facets of Torah that are less compelling (clothing and beards come to mind). But they can also lose their sense of balance and true priorities when they take one mitzvah and see it as the end-all and be-all. In so doing, they distort the ecosystem, as they also do, for example, by taking Agadic statements designed to teach us values and employing them to draw halachic conclusions, a profound methodological error.
Psak halacha (a conclusive determination of authorized practice) involves much more than just deciding that a particular mitzvah “to me or my group” is more important than any others. It involves reckoning with ancillary values (hefsed merubeh, kavod habriyot, etc.) that will play a significant role in the final analysis even if their applications involve some subjectivity. Failure to account for ancillary values – or exaggerating the importance of one particular mitzvah – will invariably lead to distortion in the final conclusion. Hence the reluctance to comply with the current societal mandates for a long time (in some places). Their yearning and intentions were as admirable as their conclusions were misguided and deadly. Thus it turns out that they were not more frum but less frum than they hoped to be. That is the price for a misconstruction of halacha but may Hashem help us all!
People often think that the greatest value in the Torah is pikuach nefesh, the preservation of life, and who is to argue with that? It is certainly a supreme value and dominates our thinking here. In truth, though, it is not the highest value, because even the saving of a life is superseded by the three cardinal sins each of which mandates martyrdom instead of violation.
That makes fidelity to G-d’s will, or better said, service of G-d in every situation we confront in life, the highest value. That divine service is ordinarily manifested in the performance of many mitzvot like Torah study, public prayer and the like. It requires the building and maintenance of communities dedicated to joint practices and shared values. If the times now demand a temporary retrenchment in that type of divine service, then we should grieve, realize what we are missing, and when the gates are reopened surge forward with renewed vigor and appreciation for the spiritual beauties of our lives.
Just like after the churban, sometimes G-d demands service through abstention in some spheres (public prayer) and intensification in other spheres (acts of kindness).
May He soon end this scourge, bring healing to the afflicted and comfort to the bereaved, and send His righteous Moshiach to redeem His world.