There are no absolute rights.
- Not the right of free speech
- Not the right to assemble.
- Not the right to pray in a synagogue.
There’s a cacophony of voices, some sincere and others opportunistic, trumpeting their right to protest against the strict lockdown that has been imposed on Israelis in an attempt to bring the Corona pandemic under control.
There are conflicting expert opinions over whether the lockdown is an effective measure. Let’s leave that to the experts. We’ll know soon enough by the results. That is a sum total of dealing with this new virus—no one knows anything for sure.
The problem in testing the premise comes from the opposition to the lockdown. People who reject the regulations and gather in groups for whatever reason are both wrong and dangerous. They’re dangerous because even if the lockdown had a chance to succeed, by defying it they are ensuring that it won’t. That means more transmission of the disease, more deaths, more lasting effects (a subject that does not get enough attention), and more suffering for many thousands of families. That’s morally wrong.
Let’s examine the limitations of these precious rights:
- Free speech
Everyone knows that the right to swing your arm ends where the next person’s nose begins. Everyone knows that it’s wrong to yell “fire” in a crowded theater. There are laws against hate speech, incitement to violence, and other extremes. There are laws against false advertising. No one serious questions whether all those are legitimate.
So what about the right of free speech in a life-threatening situation? Are we really allowed to break the quarantine rules in order to express our opinions, even if that poses a danger to ourselves and, especially, to others? Morally, we are not.
Governments have the power to decide where and when assemblies will be held. The right of free assembly does not mean the right to demonstrate for or against anyone or anything at all times and in all places. Citizens have the right to express their views, of course, but gathering in dangerous circumstances isn’t one of them.
Does any sane person question the right of a government to evacuate a town when a forest fire is approaching? Does anyone call for a demonstration in front of the fire to protest the evacuation order? Of course not. With 200,000 Corona cases in Israel, climbing by 6,000 a day, is this any less dangerous than that fire?
But citizens have a right to express their views! Yes, they do. Their supreme right to express their views in a democracy is to VOTE. Not to protest, not to assemble, not to deface property, not to block traffic. We get to vote. And here in Israel, we have had the privilege of voting three times in the last year and a half. If we voted in an incompetent government, that’s on us. If we demonstrate against it in ways that endanger ourselves and others, we are demonstrating against ourselves and harming ourselves. That is morally wrong.
- Praying in a synagogue
This is the easiest one. There is no such right. Not in civil law, and not in Jewish religious law. Do I need to go on? Fine. Prayer in synagogues is desirable, recommended, and altogether a good thing. Going to synagogue every morning is a cornerstone of my life. It’s hard to give it up. But it is not a right. It is also not a commandment. We can pray at home in extreme circumstances, and the government has determined that these are extreme circumstances. It’s not the same, it’s not as uplifting, but it’s also not permanent—IF we follow the rules and beat back this pandemic.
And if we follow the rules—wear masks properly in public, avoid gatherings and keep our distance, and practice proper personal hygiene—this crisis will wind itself down. It depends on us. Refusing to mask up is not a sign of strength—it’s a sign of extreme selfishness, stupidity, and recklessness. It’s morally wrong.
We must exercise discipline over ourselves and our actions, truthfully examine what we do individually, and pledge to do better.
Is it a coincidence that this moral test comes during the Days of Awe, just before Yom Kippur, as we are commanded to examine our behavior and atone for our sins?
There is nothing about our “rights” in the Yom Kippur liturgy. Let’s keep that in mind as we pray, wherever and however we pray.