My Dear Talmidim/ot,
A number of you have asked me regarding our spiritual and moral situation in our confused and complicated current situation, especially in the USA, but also in Israel and elsewhere as well. This is my take: The education you have received from me and from better teachers in Halakhah and Ethics forbids us, first of all, to panic or despair. As you know, we are always, and especially now, bidden to think, to decide, and to act.
‘EMUNAH, usually translated as ‘faith’, is better understood as to ‘hold fast’. Faith is not a passive mode that says, “God will provide” or, “Yeheyeh tov” (it will be alright). Faith, rather, is the empowerment by God to respond to the command of “Do good; act with integrity.” The Good and Moral Integrity are our lodestars.
So – how does this play out? Regarding COVID-19, it means that it is a given that to live is to accept risk. Nonetheless, we have choices. The easy one is to choose not to be lazy or careless, meaning that all safety precautions should be understood and enacted as a minimum and not as a maximum. A more difficult choice regards allocation of resources. It is clear that many, actively or passively, are ready to give up on the poor, the ill, or the old (disclosure: I belong to one of those categories, at least). Halakhah, if anything, favors those groups, for those with resources, the well, and the young have the means to somehow do OK.
The most difficult choice regards the issue of human safety versus economic disruption. The Jewish position is clear: “Choose life.” Money can be recovered; lost lives cannot. If I sound forceful on the issue, I am. Don’t worry about some imbalance in what I say. The advocates of Economics First have forceful advocates that work overtime and are rewarded accordingly.
The essential question — especially in the political-social sense — i.e., where we live – must be framed by where we are and who we are. Our question must be simply: what is our moral responsibility? We need to apply a challenging critique to our differing ideologies. For those who self-identify with the Right, it means a vigorous, concerted effort to “dial it down” (as per my talmid David Lonner), referring to the poisonous political rhetoric coming from the president of the USA and the prime minister of Israel, and restoring the respect for law and its processes, which both have severely eroded. Moreover, both in in the USA and in Israel, it means abandonment of religiously derived apocalyptic (USA) and messianic (Israel) scorched earth policies.
For those on the Left, a challenging critique means “dialing down” dismissive discourse regarding those on the right, and it also demands rejecting romantic revolutionary rhetoric that only leads to violent chaos. Torah readers should know that God does not favor chaos and that Jews historically fare poorly in times of national and world crisis.
The responsibility of both those on the Left and those on the Right is to have police that, yes, carry swords and not plowshares, but nonetheless are ready to defend all.
And those of us that are “in the middle,” as most Jews are, the choice and challenge is to lose our “reasonable” smugness and recognize that we have a big share in creating our alarming present situation. We have ignored the existential plight of the masses who form the population on the right; we have given up on the situation of American Blacks and Palestinian Arabs, as we have sung old Union (USA) or Kibbutz (Israel) hymns nostalgically but meaninglessly.
God created the human to be purposeful; God and the Jews chose each other to move out of chaos and to partner in creation. Now is the time to console the frightened, feed the hungry, heal the sick in body and heart, and to do it all smartly. We are capable of doing good and acting with moral integrity. After all, this has been our legacy, and it has always been our challenge and choice.
With great regard for your efforts in this difficult time and with great affection,