A tale of three Rabbis

It seems like almost an eternity from last Thursday evening until just a few days later.  That night, I participated in a meeting amongst Rabbis from the Five Towns who were discussing whether we should close community shuls.  We spoke by phone to three distinguished Poskim:  Rabbi Herschel Schacter, Rabbi Mordechai Willig and Rabbi Dovid Cohen.  Two infectious disease experts, Rabbi Dr. Aaron Glatt and Dr. Michael Oppenheim, were also present.  We discussed whether we should take the draconian measures of closing down the shuls at this point, whether we should be proactive or not at this point, and how to evaluate the power of communal prayer versus the possibility of endangering lives.  We left the meeting without a unanimous decision of how we should all act with regard to closing down the shuls.  Of course, since then with new medical information coming out, there is unanimity about closing down the shuls and taking harsh steps to ensure social distancing among the members of our Jewish community.

I spoke to some Rabbis the day after that meeting and I want to share with you three different responses by three different Rabbis.  One Rabbi said that he could not sleep Thursday night because he has a large congregation and he knew that it was extremely painful to close down the shul, but how could he keep the shul open?  How could he keep the shul open and risk someone contracting the Coronavirus, getting sick and possibly dying because he failed to act?  How could he place the lives of his congregants at risk?

Another Rabbi also could not sleep Thursday night, but for a different reason.  He couldn’t even begin to imagine the spiritual fallout from closing down his shul.  For so many members of his community, Shabbat morning in shul was their connection to Judaism.  They might not come on time to shul.  They might even come very late to shul, but coming to pray and hear the Rabbi’s drasha and learn some Torah was their source of spiritual energy which carried them throughout the rest of the week.  How would so many members of his community spiritually survive if he closes his shul down?

I also spoke to a third Rabbi.  The third Rabbi told me that he was able to sleep on Thursday night.  Why?  This Rabbi told me that he was following the medical guidance of Rabbi Dr. Aaron Glatt.  On Thursday evening, Rabbi Dr. Glatt was of the opinion that draconian measures were not required but by Friday morning, with new medical information that had come out, he changed his mind.  Once Rabbi Dr. Glatt told this Rabbi that it was too risky to keep shuls open, this third Rabbi announced that his shul would remain closed.  This Rabbi didn’t lose sleep on Thursday evening and he didn’t lose sleep on Friday either.

I think we need a bit of each Rabbinical reaction in our lives.  Sometimes we need to make difficult, uncomfortable and harsh decisions and be a “chacham ha’ro’eh et ha’nolad,” a wise man who acts proactively and not just reactively to a potential crisis.  We can’t simply say that it’s up to every individual to decide whether he or she wants to engage in a medically risky behavior, especially when it will surely impact others.  If we have the ability to exercise leadership, we must exercise leadership because lives are at stake.  But we also need to care about more than the physical well-being of our friends.  We need to care about their spiritual well-being too.   And we should do more than care.  We should cry about this new reality!  Even though I completely understand that we need to avoid all minyanim under any circumstances, I understand the pain of those individuals who are trying to find loopholes around this prohibition.  To be clear, I think that they are wrong and I have stated firmly that no minyanim should take place, even outside and even with social distancing, but I value the motivations of those who are so pained by the idea that we cannot pray with a minyan for the foreseeable future.   But I also understand the third Rabbi’s reaction.  He didn’t cry.  He didn’t lose any sleep.  This Rabbi has emunah peshutah, simple faith in God.  He struggled with the spiritual harm versus the medical necessity of closing shuls and he created a process by which to come to a decision.  He was going to be guided by a trusted medical expert and once he decided on the process, he felt comfortable that whatever he was going to do would reflect the will of God.  Deciding not to close on Thursday evening reflected the will of God and deciding to close on Friday morning also reflected the will of God.  There’s nothing to be upset about because we acted according to our best understanding and now we hand over the outcome of our actions to God and whatever He decides is for the best.  The Gemara in Brachot (54a) states that just as we recite a blessing on the good, we also recite a blessing on the bad.  We praise God even in challenging times, fully confident that this is the will of God.

So are you crying for all those lives that may have been put in jeopardy by our failure to act sooner?  Are you crying for all those Jews who are missing such a crucial component to a meaningful, Torah observant lifestyle?  Do you have complete faith that this crisis reflects the will of God and it is what is best for us even though we may not understand?  Hopefully the answer to all three questions is a resounding yes.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.