Mark Lavie
Journalist, analyst, author

Halacha and COVID-19 — fateful choices

The offending mask (photo by Mark Lavie)

We Orthodox Jews appear to be having a “coronavirus contest”—who can say “no” the most.

  • A rabbi rules that people praying on close but separate balconies can’t be considered a “minyan,” a prayer quorum of 10 men.
  • A rabbi informs a worshiper that a certain mask is improper because the straps holding it to his face go behind the head and get in the way of the straps of his tefilin.
  • Another rabbi tells worshipers lined up on two sides of a narrow street for social distancing that they don’t constitute a single minyan.
  • A “Corona monitor” at a synagogue confronts a worshiper, calling him a “liar” and a “cheater” for the heinous crime of wearing a face shield instead of a mask.
  • Citing Health Ministry restrictions, a synagogue closes its women’s section.

This is the face of Orthodox Judaism as the pandemic drags on — and there is every reason to believe that it will drag on for at least a year.

How long will it take until people rebel against this unreasonable behavior and either stop taking part in services or try a different stream of Judaism? Instead, doesn’t the COVID-19 crisis call on Orthodox leaders to ease up on some of the strictures that appeared to be routine until just a few months ago?

Jerusalem’s Temple Mount (photo by Mark Lavie)

I understand the problem. Halacha, Jewish religious law, governs every aspect of an Orthodox Jew’s life. Halacha began at Mount Sinai with the giving of the Torah, and has remained unchanged for the last 2,000 years.

At least that’s what many people say when someone suggests that some item ought to be updated.

They’re wrong, of course. I’ve been studying a Talmudic tractate called “Yevamot.” It’s about the rules concerning the fate of the wife of a childless couple when the husband dies. The default position is that she has to marry the dead husband’s brother. That’s no longer the practice — Israel’s chief rabbis banned it in 1950, in a major modern Halachic revolution.

Then the tractate discusses what happens to the dead man’s second wife. Yes, second wife. So less than 2,000 years ago, when the Talmud was being developed, Jewish men were allowed to marry two women. In fact, that continued until Rabbeinu Gershom outlawed it around 1000 CE.

Since then, there have been countless other Halachic rulings to deal with modern developments. Does anybody believe that the rabbis of the Talmud had Shabbat clocks, the timers that turn electric lights on and off on the Sabbath in modern Orthodox Jewish houses? How about electric carts that disabled people can use to get to synagogue on Shabbat, if they’re wired up properly? Did they have those around the time of the Temples of Jerusalem?

So quite the opposite of the 2,000-year-unchanged-Halacha argument, Jewish religious law as observed by Orthodox Jews has come a long way in 2,000 years. Even the last 100 years. Sometimes, a new leniency is introduced. More often, there are new “humrot,” rabbinical strictures on everyday practices.

These changes come about as natural progressions, not spurred by a crisis, like the one we’re facing now with the Corona pandemic.

So let’s say someone wants to loosen things up in light of the pandemic, which is leading to strict limits on public prayer, up to and including closing synagogues altogether. How can that be done?

Liberal branches of Judaism have no problem streaming weekday services and allowing worshippers to decide for themselves if they are praying in a minyan, which is necessary, for example, when saying “kaddish,” the prayer recited on the anniversary of the death of a loved one.

Some American congregations have rigged up a gizmo that turns a camera and a computer on to stream Shabbat services, and then turns them off. What the worshippers do at home, they figure, is their business.

Orthodox communities are light years away from allowing that kind of electronic prayer. That’s fine—if someone wants to partake, there are plenty of options outside Orthodoxy.

But what about lightening up on some of the other Orthodox restrictions and rulings? Isn’t this the classic “Shaat Hadhak”—a time of emergency, when the Talmud allows certain shortcuts?

Can we ease up on what we consider a minyan? If everyone can hear the prayer leader and respond, isn’t that enough, at a time when there’s no other way to get up a minyan? That would apply to the balconies and the streets.

Can we designate a portion of our worshipper allocation for women?

Can we recognize that wearing a mask during prayers is an emergency measure, and stop inspecting and measuring every aspect of every mask to see if it complies with a Halacha that never considered the possibility of worshippers wearing masks at all? (In fairness, the above-mentioned well-meaning rabbi withdrew his ruling after further study.)

And perhaps most important of all—can we accept that we are all in this together, and maintain an attitude of “derech eretz,” politeness and compassion, in dealing with our fellow Jews in these stressful times? Can we stop even the well-intended“gotcha”?

The future of Orthodox Judaism, in the minds of many worshippers, hangs in the balance.

MARK LAVIE has been covering the Mideast since 1972. His second book, “Why Are We Still Afraid?” walks through his years as a reporter in Israel and reaches a surprising conclusion.

About the Author
MARK LAVIE has been covering the Middle East as a news correspondent, analyst and author since he moved to Israel in 1972. Most of his work has been in radio news, starting as an anchor and reporter for Israel Radio's English-language news service and continuing as Middle East correspondent for radio networks including NPR, NBC, Mutual, and CBC in Canada, then 15 years with The Associated Press, both radio and print. He won the New York Overseas Press Club's Lowell Thomas Award for “Best radio interpretation of foreign affairs” in 1994. His second book, “Why Are We Still Afraid?” is a personal look at 46 years of Israeli history, and it comes to a clear and surprising conclusion.
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