Last year, I was invited to be part of a panel of rabbis to submit answers to questions posed by the editor of the Jewish Press. The column appears bi-weekly, and I take this opportunity to present my approach to the questions raised. Each question is fascinating in its own right, as are the variety of answers proffered. All the answers can be viewed at.
Here is the fifth selection with my take on these issues – RSP
Is it proper to panic over the corona virus epidemic?
It is hard not to panic since the response and countermeasures have been exactly what would have been prescribed had we also been told to panic, and to panic quickly! But, as the Beach Boys once sang, “cool heads and warm hearts” should govern our reaction.
This is because panic leads to irrational thinking and impetuous moves that tend to exacerbate the problem. Both the WHO and Johns Hopkins have reported that most people who are in the presence of the infected will not become infected themselves (as contagious as the virus is) and 80% of the infected will have “no or mild symptoms” of the virus, which will in any event pass after a few days. Those with underlying medical conditions that compromise their health are the most vulnerable and they should be extra-cautious in their public interactions. But they too need not panic.
Above all we are a nation that is grounded in its faith in G-d. We are only asked to do our hishtadlut – our very best and considered efforts to avoid contamination and transmission – and trust in G-d’s infinite compassion. We live in a world with ubiquitous dangers – from terror to sudden illness to accidents. We always rely on He who is “shomer peta’im” (Tehillim 116:6), who “preserves the simple” from unknown hazards in ways that we do not fully recognize or appreciate.
We should not minimize the crisis nor be cavalier in our response. We should not think that any of us are immune from illness and therefore exempt from any restrictions on our lives. But we should apply our reason and faith to this situation and all others, follow the guidelines of the officials and rabbis, and know that in a short time, gam zu yaavor – this too shall pass.
Is it appropriate to look for, and publicize, gematrias and Torah codes related to the current Coronavirus pandemic?
Well, it certainly gives people with a lot of time on their hands something to do.
For sure, hafoch ba vahafoch ba d’chola ba. “Turn and turn in it [Torah] because everything is in it” (Avot 5:22). The Torah is the repository of G-d’s wisdom and thus it is unsurprising that it is a fount of information and insight on all matters. Searching for allusions in the Torah to all events – from dire crises to birthdays – has been a Jewish parlor game since ancient times.
Nevertheless, we should realize the limitations of the exercise and its propriety. Obviously, the data can easily be manipulated to produce the desired result; often, the deductions are strained and the sources of limited value. If the point is to show that G-d is Master of the Universe then undoubtedly that engenders the humility in mankind that is too often lacking today. However, if the subtext is that because we have deciphered these references we therefore have precise knowledge as to how G-d runs His world, then that conclusion is incorrect, troubling and spiritually self-defeating. It is the antithesis of what we should be learning from this calamity.
Ultimately, the pursuit of hints and codes reflects the quest for security in an insecure time, as if we should not feel vulnerable because it was all so predictable to “insiders.” That too is an unhelpful approach.
It would have been helpful – for this and predictions of other catastrophes and wonders – if the purveyors of this information had warned us of the coming catastrophe last December rather than last week or last month. Then we could have avoided much spiritual, physical, emotional and financial hardship. But somehow that never happens. It smacks too much, therefore, of the chacham l’achar ma’aseh – the “genius after the fact” – syndrome.
Should one dress up for a shiur on Zoom if no one can see anything more than your face and top of your shirt?
Do we dress to impress others or for ourselves? Probably both – although my sense is more of the former and less of the latter. Nonetheless, Rav Yochanan (Masechet Shabbat 113a) would refer to his clothing as “mechabduti,” that which brings me honor. Clothing reflects our inner dignity, and can serve, for better or worse, as a source of identification with a particular group or lifestyle.
One can certainly argue that what we wear at home during our waking hours should engender as much self-respect and respect for Torah as if we were appearing in public. There are rabbis who would never remove their frocks even in their homes and even in front of their family. Indeed, one could cogently argue that a person should dress up even for a Zoom shiur – but I wouldn’t make that argument…or dress up in fancy clothing.
Clothes define a person but they can also distort and deceive. The costumes we wear – and we all wear costumes of some kind – often say little about our inner life or spiritual gravitas. They create impressions that are often misleading and sometimes are meant to mislead. We might even be placing too much emphasis on clothing in Jewish life by expecting or insisting – overtly or covertly – that everyone should wear the same color, style and material.
As long as one is not dressed immodestly, I see no problem with Zoom participants relaxing at home in informal garb. We should save our special clothing for shul, tefila and Shabbat, and at home zoom in on the Torah being learned and not the fashion choices of the participants.
How does a young woman determine what is or isn’t immodest when it comes to clothing that falls in the grey area of tznius (i.e., the article of clothing is long enough but its overall look is problematic in the eyes of some but not in the eyes of others)? Does she consult her own conscience? Ask her mother? A teacher?
Certainly there are both objective and subjective elements to tzniut. Often communities will maintain their own stringent standards that would and should not pertain elsewhere. But the common and overarching objective for every person who aspires to tzniut is the desire not to call attention to ancillary aspects of the human being, such as clothing, appearance and the body itself.
Breaches of tzniut are always rooted in a flawed self-definition – people who want to be known primarily for their physical attributes instead of some quality that reflects true human greatness such as one’s intellect, spirituality or moral excellence. Thus, the Torah mandates that a kohen with an obvious physical blemish cannot serve in the Bet Hamikdash, sensing that onlookers will focus on the blemish and the kohen as an individual and not just an agent thereby detracting from his divine mission.
If that is the barometer of tzniut – a conscious decision to be valued by others for the way we express our uniqueness as people and not the way we flaunt our animalistic side – then all three resources are most helpful. The teacher can impart what precisely are the community standards and expectations, just as the mother can flesh out her daughter’s values, thought processes and conclusions. Ultimately, though, children leave home and live on their own so it is critical that they develop the correct notions about body and self-image, about the particular way in which they wish to be identified and to make their mark in the world, and about our responsibilities as Bnai and Bnot Torah.
This is the only way they will learn to make healthy and proper decisions as adults.