Robert Harris
A Rabbi and Professor at Jewish Theological Seminary

Pikuach Nefesh: a Rabbi’s case for the need to protect life

When news of the crisis generated by the Coronavirus began peaking during these past weeks, I had initially hesitated from responding to, being neither a scientist nor a public health official.  But eventually…  as a rabbi, a faculty member of the Jewish Theological Seminary and as a former member both of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards and of the Israel Rabbinical Assembly Law Committee, I chose to advocate clearly and unequivocally our need as religious leaders to take drastic action to enforce social distancing, in the absence of what were then clear governmental directives.  As I wrote last week, in an essay circulated among my friends and colleagues, “now is not the time to debate the fine points of use of electricity on Shabbat, or other, now trivial, matters that typically divide us one from another; we are talking about pikuach nefesh, the saving of human life.”

I am sharing these sentiments again in what I hope will be an even wider forum — not quite a teshuvah (rabbinic responsum), for there is no time to calmly research one, but more than just an op ed — with a great amount of respect for the various ways in which people of all faiths are struggling to respond to the virus and its implications for our individual, family and communal lives.  But even as I am cheered by developments in a variety of quarters that have succeeded in closing down places of worship and all venues for public gathering until the crisis will have passed, nonetheless I still hope that religious authorities of all faiths will shout from their respective rooftops:  rabbis and clergy people of all faith:  E-services, everyone!!!  Social distancing!  Virtual congregations!  All public religious worship should be set aside until the crisis passes.  If the NBA, NCAA and MLB are canceling or postponing their sports seasons, out of concern for the sanctity of human life, then how much the more so should we follow suit for the purpose of gathering in worship!  And since it appears that governments on the national, state and local levels have at last begun to order the enforce closing of businesses, schools and public places of gathering, religious institutions of all faiths must follow suit.

For those readers unfamiliar with the rabbinic principle of pikuach nefesh, let me describe it in the most general of terms:  the Torah states (in a context that has little meaning for the subsequent talmudic discussion or my purposes here): “you shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which humankind shall live: I am the LORD (Leviticus 18:5).  A midrash, or rabbinic interpretation, teaches:  “to live by them — and not die by them!” (Babylonian Talmud, Treatise Yoma 85b).  The Sages considered many applications of the principle they found in verses like these; I will share just one of them here.  It is from the same section in the Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 84b:

What are the circumstances in which uncertainty would arise as to whether or not a person’s life will be in danger in the future? They are a case where doctors assess that an ill person needs a certain treatment for eight days, and the first day of his illness is Shabbat. Lest you say: He should wait until evening and begin his treatment after Shabbat so they will not need to desecrate two Shabbatot for his sake, therefore it teaches us that one must immediately desecrate Shabbat for his sake. This is the halacha, despite the fact that an additional Shabbat will be desecrated as a result, because there is uncertainty about whether his life is in danger.

Thus, the Rabbis have ruled in such cases of desecration of Shabbat — a subject which, as we all know, they took to be central to their understanding and practice of Judaism — the principle of pikuach nefesh, the actual or even the potential saving of human life, should take precedence without any hesitation.

Moreover, we are not speaking of a ritual observance, a mitzvah bein adam la-Makom (“a commandment between humankind and God”), but rather ethical and social commandments of the highest order, that guide our conduct with our fellow human beings, mitzvot bein adam ve-havero (“commandments among humankind”).  And particularly in light of the risk of contagion with a potentially deadly (but certainly serious, in any case) disease, I do feel that every precaution is necessary and mandatory, until we really get this under control.  Right now we are merely challenged and inconvenienced, but the potential risk is far greater, as I’m sure you are aware.

In light of the threat that the virus poses, and the rabbinic values clearly at play as the preceding passage indicates, I am strengthened by the resolve shown by the growing number of religious organizations of all faiths that have advocated the closure of facilities for any public gathering including religious services.  This, really, is the only course of action a synagogue, church, mosque or other institution of worship should take under the present circumstances.  We will surely see that all of the inconveniences of quarantines and other restrictions pale in comparison to dealing with an even more serious outbreak of disease and suffering.

Jewish law, Halacha is clear: pikuch nefesh doheh et ha-kol, “the saving of life outweighs every other principle.”  And as the Sages have taught countless times in the Talmud and classical literature of Codes and Responsa, this is an expansive principle, not restricted only to actual moments of saving one individual’s life.  This is a time, in fact, for what the Sages have termed humrot, “legal stringencies,” as we typically do in countless ritual ways but in this case we should practice for a serious, extremely serious and potentially dire circumstance, one that threatens both Jews and Gentiles and, if set loose even further, is a mash-hit, a destructive power that can, God forbid, destroy everything that every decent person holds dear.

Therefore, I advocate that people of all faiths find ways to practice our respective religious beliefs for the immediate future… in the privacy of our own homes, individually and/or in online communities, and to avoid public assembly until the crisis passes.  For Jews, I would instruct us to continue to daven, pray, three times a day and fulfill all mitzvot and religious obligations… in our homes, b’yahid, individually, until our communal leaders and government indicate that our gatherings do not endanger public health.  And we should do so voluntarily, and gladly, b’simhat mitzvah, “with the joy of fulfilling God’s commandments,” knowing that our humra, the stringent interpretation that I am advocating here, enhances the quality both of our lives and those of our neighbors.  Doing this happily and willingly and immediately — that would truly be a kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of God’s Holy Name, more than reciting the additional prayers that may not be recited by individuals.  I would close the nursery schools, Hebrew schools, and cancel all public religious services and every other occasion of public gathering. I would not permit the holding shiva minyanim (the “week-long” household prayer services by mourners). I would hold all classes online and live stream every and all religious services. I would direct our communities to limit their public activities to delivering food parcels, caring for the sick, burying the dead as necessary, and other ways of sanctifying God’s name in public — but only those kinds of practices, and only doing so in conjunction with the directives of public health officials.

And that is why I couched my thoughts as a humrah, an additional restriction beyond the minimal requirements of law and practice.  Since the potential of threat and contagion is so great, I believe that it requires us to be extra vigilant and not minimally so.  And I do understand the hardship my “not-quite a teshuvahteshuvah, engenders. This is my “response” to the crisis, and I call upon religious leaders of all faiths and denominations to echo these sentiments and find ways to express them in your own religious language.

To my own movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, I urge that we issue a temporary decree, or takkanah, that, for the sake of life, permits the live streaming of all religious services.  Let us lead the way so that the rabbinic leadership of all movements in Judaism may see the example that the Rabbinical Assembly will set.  And I urge religious leaders of all other faiths to find language and means that are appropriate to your own beliefs and observances to sanctify God’s Holy Name and not endanger human life.

Do not hesitate, with such a threat facing our communities, this is not a time for pondering and reflecting and discussing; it is what the Sages called a she’at de-haq, “an urgent circumstance,” one that brooks no other direction and one that requires immediate action.  That is what being a leader in God’s name requires.

A concern has already arisen in terms of the essay I issued last week and will likely do so on account of this one, as well:  if, in Judaism, at least, no Divine command is thought to exist that requires formal, public prayer to enable Jews to fulfill our obligations, why is it imperative to enact a temporary decree making live streaming of prayer permissible on Shabbat?  My response is that for people who are accustomed to private prayer, are adept in its recitation and achieve a sense of fulfillment through individual worship, I agree, absolutely.  Such individuals may not need the sense of community that live streaming makes possible, and can feel content and a sense of purpose to be in private communion with God.  But, simply put, most others do need precisely that, a virtual community that will temporarily replace the real one they are losing.  And given the potential weeks or months of social isolation that loom before us, I would say, again, we cannot and ought not hesitate!  A society such as ours that is facing a pandemic — and if that is not a she’at de-haq, “an urgent circumstance,” I do not know what one is — must know that its religious leaders, no less than its political leaders, are responding to the circumstances and great needs of the moment.  In our moment it is our obligation to do everything we can to enhance the sanctity of human life.  Abnormal times require extraordinary measures.

Be bold, Rabbis! Go forth, Clergy of all faiths. As God once told a hesitant Moses (Exodus 17:5), avor lifneh ha-am, “Pass before the people!”  The great medieval commentator, Rashi, glossed, “And let us just see if they stone you!”  I believe that our congregations and organizations, while they might have initially been resistant, will get on board, and we will help to lead like-minded religious leaders to take similar steps.  And who knows?  As we all raise our voices, perhaps our political and civic leaders, as well as our congregants, will heed our call?!

In any case, I wish us all, our families and our neighbors, good health, and hizzuk, strength, to deal with all of the challenges that the quarantines and restrictions present.

Robert A. Harris is Professor of Bible at The Jewish Theological Seminary, teaching courses in biblical literature and commentary, particularly medieval Jewish biblical exegesis, and is Chair of the Bible Department.  Dr. Harris has written several books, and has published many studies in the history of medieval Biblical exegesis in both American and Israeli journals. He also lectures on biblical narrative and Jewish liturgy in congregations and adult education institutes around the country.  Dr. Harris has lectured as a visiting professor at universities in Europe and Israel, and has served as a rabbi in several congregations in the United States and Israel.

About the Author
Robert A. Harris is Professor of Bible at The Jewish Theological Seminary, teaching courses in biblical literature and commentary, particularly medieval Jewish biblical exegesis, and is Chair of the Bible Department. Dr. Harris has written several books, and has published many studies in the history of medieval Biblical exegesis in both American and Israeli journals. He also lectures on biblical narrative and Jewish liturgy in congregations and adult education institutes around the country. Dr. Harris has lectured as a visiting professor at universities in Europe and Israel, and has served as a rabbi in several congregations in the United States and Israel.
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