Is Attending a Political Protest More Important than Attending a Funeral?

I recently wrote about the embarrassing spectacle of public health experts who had been warning about the grave dangers of large public gatherings because of potential Coronavirus spread changing their tune and either endorsing or at least refusing to criticize massive anti-racism protests, despite the large potential for mass Coronavirus outbreaks to spread from these protests.

Many Jewish religious leaders are faring no better. Across the spectrum, with the exception of a few Haredi outliers, American rabbinical authorities and organizations have since March calling for strict adherence to social distancing and the banning of any sort of religious gatherings. Wanted to have a Passover Seder with your lonely, elderly mom? Nope. Wanted to gather in synagogue for a minyan (required religious quorum) for the yarzheit (anniversary) of your wife’s death to say kaddish? Nope. Wanted to have more than ten attendees at your dad’s funeral? Nope.

Consider the Reform Movement’s emphatic insistence on shutting down communal gatherings, even in areas with few Covid-19 cases, basing its decision  on “our most compelling teaching: our most powerful Torah is the lived example we offer.”

That is why we urge you to take the most restrictive steps possible in order to help limit the spread of disease…. Even where other activity might still be permitted by local authorities, we strongly recommend that congregational leaders observe and endorse a strategy of shelter-in-place, by which:

  • the only in-person function that congregations offer be graveside funerals attended by ten people or fewer, dependent on rules set by local cemeteries, with those present observing appropriate social distancing;
  • any other congregational activity, from worship services to shivah minyanim to classes, meetings, and programs, regardless of the number of participants, take place via Zoom, Facebook Live, or other affordable technologies. Congregations should not facilitate or endorse any physical gathering of persons who do not already live in the same house, including bar/bat mitzvahs;
  • even in our many communities where members feel a strong visual attachment to a beloved worship space, and even recognizing that the on-screen sight of worship leaders in a familiar space can be a source of comfort at a time of disruption, services and all other activities be streamed exclusively from leaders’ homes…

Now consider a letter written and distributed by the Reform movement’s left-wing Religious Action Center, and signed by 800 rabbis, including Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, chief executive of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbi Deborah Waxman, president of Reconstructing Judaism, and two leading Reform figures, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism; Rabbi Hara Person, chief executive of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis:

As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, to march is to pray with our feet. Throughout American history, the right to protest peacefully has been a hallmark of free expression. In the past week, clergy of all faiths have joined in and supported protests happening in cities nationwide, spurred by the death of George Floyd at the hands of police. Like Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Dreasjon “Sean” Reed and too many others to name, Mr. Floyd was a victim of the nation’s long history of brutality against people of color, and particularly Black men. Protests are a just response to all-too-familiar anger, frustration, and pain. I stand for the right to peaceful protest and call on our nation’s law enforcement and elected officials not to interfere with this bedrock First Amendment expression.

That’s the full text of the letter. It contains not a single word about the need to maintain social distancing at these protests, about the Torah valuing pikuach nefesh over all else (a constant theme of religious missives about Covid-19), nor any explanation of why these religious authorities consider anti-racism protests more important than fulfilling religious obligations, being comforted by family and friends at a funeral, and so on. The Reform movement’s own guidance that congregations shouldn’t facilitate any public gatherings is blatantly contradicted by the endorsement of huge public protests for a particular social cause.

I don’t mean to pick on Reform here; one can find similar contradiction and hypocrisy from the Conservative and Reconstructionist movements.

The rabbis who signed the letter may think they are being moral leaders; they aren’t. What they are showing is a greater devotion to progressive political ends than to specifically religious needs. Even if one accepts the argument that the protests are a mitzvah, or they a greater mitzvah than, say, comforting mourners?

The notion that just all communal and even family religious functions (like Seders) must be shut down for health reasons, even if social distance can be maintained with small gatherings, but that it’s praiseworthy for tens of thousands of people to engage shoulder to shoulder in political protests gives us a strong idea of where these rabbis’ priorities lie, and it isn’t with Judaism.

About the Author
David E. Bernstein is a professor at the Antonin Scalia Law School, George Mason University, where he teaches constitutional law and evidence. He is married to an Israeli and travels to Israel regularly.
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