2020 has been a trying year. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a terrible toll – in human life, in economic terms, in the functioning of society and in frayed nerves. The impact has been universal, if unequal. Our hearts go out particularly to those who have suffered, and lost, the most.
While the swift emergence of not only one but multiple vaccines effective at combating the coronavirus represents a substantial source of hope – and a scientific marvel – all signs indicate that months will pass before the treatment is very widely accessible, and during these months thousands more may yet die. Despite that threat, fatigue over restrictions meant to contain the pandemic have too many – from virtually every demographic group – relaxing or outright refusing to abide by precautions that grate on all of us. Some people, perhaps given pause by the very speed of the new vaccinations’ development, will hesitate to accept inoculation once possible.
Highly religious communities – by their nature placing a premium on congregating for prayer and other rites, on tradition uninterrupted and on faith – have been especially vulnerable to the spread of the novel coronavirus, and to resisting the perceived dictates of secular authorities. Certain religious groups, including Catholics and fervently observant Jews, have gone to court to fight, of late successfully, against curbs on gatherings for prayer. National media have shown some hassidic Jews continuing to gather in large numbers for weddings, schooling and eminent rabbis’ funerals. These episodes, though not reflecting the entirety of a large and diverse population – and not necessarily implying the absence of any health precautions – do indicate a suspicion of anti-religious (or specifically anti-Jewish) tendencies by some in government. This outlook is the product of long and difficult historical experience, and is also borne of a sense that in some places gyms and bars have been subjected to less scrutiny and regulation than synagogues and other places of worship.
Of course, ultimately nothing can condone reckless behavior that endangers the collective well-being. Scenes of crowds – of whatever stripe – completely flouting public health guidance are deplorable.
But what does Judaism itself have to say about exceptional circumstances like those we have confronted over the past year?
While undoubtedly committing the fate of human beings to God – and charging human beings with reaching out to God and with bettering their treatment of fellow creatures in the divine image – the Torah says “v’nishmartem me’od l’nafshoteichem” (Deut. 4), commanding: “and you shall guard your souls exceedingly.” It further says, of keeping God’s ordinances, “v’chai bahem” (Lev. 18), that “you shall live by them” – not perish by them. Additionally, relates Deuteronomy (chap. 30), “lo bashamayim hi” – the Torah is “not in the heavens,” but is to be observed within earthly realities.
Accordingly, rabbinic tradition has held that “pikuach nefesh docheh et kol haTorah kula,” that saving a life takes precedence over nearly all other obligations in Judaism; indeed, if a Sabbath must be violated by first responders to prevent death, or if medical experts require a patient not to fast on Yom Kippur for the same reason, doing so is not only allowed but mandatory. After all, the Ten Commandments themselves include “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20) – and the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4) says that “anyone who destroys a life, it is considered as if he has destroyed an entire world, while anyone who sustains a life, it is considered as if he has sustained an entire world.”
Preserving life, then, is a most elemental of Jewish religious duties – a righteous deed that is prerequisite for all the rest. “I have set before you life and death... And you shall choose life,” states Deuteronomy.
Of relevance, the Talmud also repeatedly makes clear that “dina d’malchuta dina,” the law of the land is the law: when official regulations are established, they demand compliance. And Jews are called upon to be paragons of rectitude – for their public trespasses create “chillul Hashem,” a desecration of God’s name, while their acting justly represents “kiddush Hashem,” sanctification of God’s name.
And not least, Jews are instructed to choose “darchei shalom,” paths conducive to peace among people. The Talmudic Rabbi Elazar said in the name of Rabbi Chanina (Berachot 64a), “Torah scholars increase peace in the world.” The sage Hillel famously taught (Avot 1), “Be among the disciples of Aaron: love peace and pursue peace, love humanity and bring them closer to the Torah.”
Life, and observing dueling commitments within its confines, involves complexity. Virtually all action involves some sort of risk, and it is for competent decisors to provide guidance on navigating tension of the kind that will periodically surface between religious commitments and civic commitments, let alone between religious commitments and the call to “choose life.” What is clear, though, is that for all the importance of communal religious practice – and in a community-centered people, places and acts of public worship are indeed vital – saving lives and preserving societal harmony are also critically important religious imperatives.
Believers, who discern God’s hand even in dark times, must work to see God’s hand in solutions to plight as well. And they must strive to be active partners in enabling these solutions to bring their healing.
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