A rabbi’s push for pikuach nefesh

Rabbi Ariel Abel (Jewish News)
Rabbi Ariel Abel (Jewish News)

There are concerns that Rabbi Ariel Abel is about to resign from his part-time post with the Liverpool community, Now, not only have the community got the most beautiful synagogue in the country but they are a very nice bunch, so it seems a great pity that some problem should disturb their normal tranquility.

The row is over an article Rabbi Abel wrote in the Jewish Telegraph, advising the congregation not to fast on Yom Kippur. Apparently, fasting lowers the effectiveness of the immune system and, therefore, makes coronavirus more dangerous.

Now Liverpool has been particularly badly hit by the virus. It was shut down by the government before the whole country. One of the Jewish victims was a holocaust survivor. We have a great deal of sympathy with Liverpool. I have less sympathy with the senior warden, Saul Marks, who has written to the Rabbi and asked him to “write nothing that could reasonably reflect badly on the congregation or bring it into disrepute”. Legal advice has been taken.

For the life of me, I can’t understand why. The Rabbi is 100% in the right. First of all, a Rabbi is a teacher. He is not a CEO and you don’t have to do what he says. Indeed a lot of people don’t. Second, he is there to say what the din is. Not to make laws, but to say what the law is. The law is perfectly clear. Pikuach Nefesh – you can break any law if it is to save life.

Rabbi Abel knows that fasting can endanger life; ipso facto, you don’t have to fast. If that means people reflect badly on the Liverpool congregation or it is brought into disrepute as a result of his advice, they are just showing their ignorance. He is doing his job according to the Halacha.

A lawyer can agree with Mr. Marks, but Rashi, Maimonides, and the Vilna Gaon don’t. Does the lawyer have Semicha even? The Rabbi, when he joined the congregation, was supposed to act according to Rabbinic rules. The Honorary Officers must have known that and indeed required it. Today, the congregation either stands its ground or tears up the rule book.
We are here because generations of our ancestors didn’t do so. For example, the Orthodox decision not to allow same-sex marriages in synagogue will undoubtedly bring the congregation into disrepute with the left wing. Does that mean that Mr. Marks expects the Rabbi to approve them?

It’s a free country and the left wing is fully entitled to set its own rules. As the Union of American Hebrew Congregations website tells us “One of the guiding principles of Reform Judaism is the autonomy of the individual. A right to decide whether to subscribe to this particular belief or to that particular practice.”

The Orthodox don’t have that autonomy. Was it Rabbi Abel’s brief when he joined the Liverpool community that they should have? It’s a free country but there is absolutely no way he could promise to abide by that interpretation of the religion. The Orthodox also have the freedom to abide by the Halacha and to accept the din, and that is what he was doing when he gave his advice.

Now I don’t happen to agree with him about Yom Kippur and I’m going to continue fasting. It seems to me that it would be very unfair for the Almighty to punish someone who is fasting by so reducing his/her immune system that the fasting may contribute to killing him/her. I don’t happen to believe the Almighty is ever unfair and, therefore, fasting will be safe. It’s called religious faith.

Of course, it’s just an opinion and advising the community not to fast because of the pandemic raises the question of what happens when the pandemic is over. Our immune system is working every day of our lives. So it may be required to go into action any day of any year. So does that mean that we should never fast? The answer must be “It’s worth taking the risk” in normal years. So, in fact, relying on the Almighty is what we do every year – probably without working it out before in this way. Who knows how an immune system works, for goodness sake.

The danger is that Rabbi Abel’s comments will be remembered if he is ever looking for another position. It is, therefore, up to the Liverpool community to support him now. Not, necessarily, to do what he says, but to confirm his right and his responsibility to say whatever is in the halacha.

About the Author
Derek is an author & former editor of the Jewish Year Book
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