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Rabbinic leadership in the age of coronavirus

The rabbis are paying attention to scientific research and prioritizing health -- which is exactly what I'd expect and... I'm pleasantly surprised
Illustrative. An adult dispensing hand-sanitizer to a child. (iStock)
Illustrative. An adult dispensing hand-sanitizer to a child. (iStock)

On a typical day, I rarely have praise for the Orthodox rabbinic establishment. I am more likely to be found critiquing it. However, recently, I have been extremely impressed by the Orthodox rabbinic response to the coronavirus. 

The virus is a major public health concern for millions of people around the world. Their fears are not unwarranted; governments around the world have been working to contain the virus and issuing public warnings, including exhortations to properly wash one’s hands in order to prevent the spread of the disease.

Like any moment of crisis, this moment provided a challenge to the rabbinic establishment: how will they respond to the threat of this disease, and to people’s fears surrounding that threat? Will they manage to step up and provide the guidance their communities need during a difficult time?

The rabbinic response to the coronavirus has been an example of rabbis responding in a real way to the needs of the community and taking medical science and people’s health very seriously. The rabbis have understood that during a time of crisis, they must speak up. Their communities will feel disappointed if their religion has nothing to say to them about this challenge, or if they see the system as being irresponsible towards people’s health.

Examples of rabbinic leadership include:

Chief Rabbi David Lau ruling that it is forbidden for someone in quarantine to attend synagogue. He ruled that: 

An isur gamur (complete prohibition) applies to anyone at risk of harming another person even if the chances are very slight.” 

He ruled that it is forbidden to put someone else in danger if you have even a slight reason to think you might have the virus, or to put oneself in danger by visiting a place where there is a higher risk of contracting the virus. To do so would be a violation of the halachic principle of “ve-nishmartem me’od le-nafshoteichem” — “And you will guard yourselves greatly.”

His response has three components:

  1. Recognition of the reality of the threat. The very fact that a ruling is being published, is a recognition that the threat of coronavirus is real. This recognition sends a subliminal message, that the evidence and guidelines provided by scientific experts is valid. 
  2. Recognition of the importance of public safety as a halachic value. The halachic value of saving a life dates back to talmudic times, when it was ruled that saving a life could override Shabbat. However, Rabbi Lau takes speaks specifically of the principle of public health, arguing that endangering public health violates the Torah value of “You will guard yourselves greatly.” Thus, he moves from the concept of personal health being a halachic value to public health being a halachic value. This reframes things: it means that a halachic ruling to protect public health is not upholding public health at the expense of halacha, but rather, upholding halacha in its decision to uphold public health.
  3. Recognition of the religious needs of his community. if there is a principle that saving a life can override Shabbat, why bother publishing this ruling at all? After all, people should be able to figure out for themselves that endangering their lives or the lives of them around them is more important than going to synagogue? But Rabbi Lau understands that, often, that is not how people work. They feel that being sick offers them a loophole that  they can use to not attend synagogue — but that of course, it would be better to attend prayer services. They see it as an extra measure of dedication if they choose to go to synagogue despite being sick, and feel guilty if they don’t make it. By reframing not attending synagogue, from a choice people can make, to a halachic obligation that they have, this ruling gets rid of the extra measure of holiness people might feel if they go, or the extra guilt they might feel if they stay home. They can now feel that it is precisely staying home, they are fulfilling their halachic obligation. That’s why it is necessary to have a ruling forbidding people from showing up, rather than simply a reminder that they are not obligated  to attend.

Additionally, Rabbi Lau published a letter stating that there is no mitzvah to kiss the mezuzah. He added that furthermore, it was already ruled by certain rabbis in the 19th century that one should be careful about kissing a mezuzah, because there might be a “fear of danger,” presumably from the spread of disease through contact. He then adds that currently, because of the coronavirus, one should refrain from kissing or touching a mezuzah at all. He ends by saying, “I have already expressed my opinion about the coronavirus, that it is an obligation to act according to the instructions of those in charge of public health.”

Rabbi Herschel Shachter, a senior rosh yeshiva from Yeshiva University, ruled that in cases where there is a fear of pikuach nefesh (endangering a life) related to the coronavirus, one may listen to the Megilat Esther during the upcoming Purim festival by live phone call or videochat, instead of coming to synagogue. He cites Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who ruled that because hearing the megillah is a rabbinic obligation, one may fulfill their obligation to hear the megillah via phone in a “bedieved” situation, i.e., when there are legitimate extenuating circumstances. Extending this ruling, Rabbi Shachter explains that an emergency situation counts as such a “bedieved” situation. This ruling is notable for a few reasons:

  1. Like Rabbi Lau’s ruling, it takes the coronavirus threat seriously, thereby validating scientific expertise.
  2. Rabbi Schachter’s ruling cites one of America’s most prominent 20th century rabbis, thereby legitimizing his response within the realm not only of Talmudic and early rabbinic literature, but also, within the realm of modern halachic decisions and discourse. Legitimizing one’s position within the realm of previous halachic decisions is a crucial part of the halachic process, and a crucial component of one’s ruling being accepted by the general Orthodox public.
  3. Rabbi Schachter’s ruling does not define what situations are that might qualify as a situation where there is a pikuach nefesh concern related to coronavirus. His language is deliberately vague. This allows for much flexibility; individuals and communities have room to define for themselves what these situations might be, knowing that their decisions are “covered” by Rabbi Schachter’s ruling.

Rabbi Asher Bush published an update on the popular “Torah Musings” blog. This update had a few components: 1) A summary of Rabbi Lau’s ruling; 2) An injunction to blow kisses to the Torah, instead of kissing it directly; 3) CDC instructions for hand-washing; 4) An explanation of why it is okay to use hand sanitizer on Shabbat. His update was also shared to the Rabbinic Council of America Facebook page.

This post is important in that it uses the rabbinic voice to publicize practical public health advice from medical experts, and to amplify the audience that will have access to Rabbi Lau’s ruling. As such, it understands that the role of the rabbi is not merely to make rabbinic rulings, but also, to use their voice to talk about important topics that they think their community needs to hear.  Additionally, his ruling on kissing the Torah brings to light a practice people might not think about, raises public health concerns about that practice, and then provides a solution. This is a solution in which an accommodation to the practice must be made for public health, once more underscoring the value of human health and the validity of scientific knowledge embedded in the halachic process. Similarly, it takes what might be a common concern about hand sanitizer on Shabbat, and addresses that concern, thereby demonstrating knowledge of the community it is appealing to. Addressing those concerns validates the religious concerns of the community; finding a way to rule that hand sanitizer is allowed demonstrates commitment to finding a solution that will in fact help people to lessen the spread of the disease.

To me, these statements represent examples of the Jewish tradition of using the rules of halacha to create rulings that take into account the needs and psychological makeup of one’s community. They are part of a 2,000 year old tradition of respecting the scientific research of one’s era, and of putting a high religious value on each individual’s health and well-being. 

A legal ruling is valid only if it is able to produce itself from within the legal system it is a part of. These rulings’ strength come from the fact that they abide by the halachic rules of process. These rules are part of the strength of Halacha, which stems from its systematicity. But halacha’s other strength is its ability to be flexible, while remaining within the bounds it has set for itself. It is this flexibility that has allowed halacha to adapt to the needs of the Jewish communities throughout the ages, thereby remaining relevant and maintaining the commitment of their adherents. But in response to modernity, this flexibility came to be seen as a threat, rather than a strength.

I find these rulings heartening precisely because they rely on both strengths of halacha: its rules and its flexibility — and because they return us to the Jewish tradition of placing a premium on protecting human life and well-being. Now how about we extend those principles to other realms of life as well?

About the Author
Shayna Abramson, a part-Brazilian native Manhattanite, studied History and Jewish Studies at Johns Hopkins University before moving to Jerusalem. She has also spent some time studying Torah at the Drisha Institute in Manhattan, and has a passion for soccer and poetry. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in Political Science from Hebrew University, and is a rabbinic fellow at Beit Midrash Har'el.
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