Slow Down; Don’t Move Too Fast

We are, by no means, finished with the coronavirus pandemic, but all 50 states are reopening.

Hopefully, government officials guided by the medical professionals will maintain the right balance of remaining cautious while guiding the critical process of reopening businesses and getting back to some semblance of normal. We all just need to keep our distance, wash our hands, and avoid touching our faces. It can’t hurt to keep praying as well.

With all of the talk about reopening, I have Simon and Garfunkel’s “Feelin’ Groovy” playing in my head. You know, the line: Slow down; you move too fast. (Now, the song is in your head, too.)

I read all the reports of the various paces of reopening – which states allow restaurants to open, what about gyms, why are the barbers and hairdressers not open yet? With four kids at home, I know how badly people want to get outside and have more to do, and I am also well aware of the financial hardships many face as long as we are “closed.” As a rabbi, I am neck-deep in discussions as to what are the necessary steps to reopen synagogues to have miynan again – government regulations, indoors vs. outdoors, what kind of cleaning will be needed in between services. What will the High Holidays look like?

And yet…

Slow down; you move too fast. I can’t help but feel that, when it comes to synagogue services, there should be no rush.

We cannot – and should not – stay closed longer than necessary. At the same time, we should be guided by knowledge. We will most effectively get back to normal by reopening in a way we know is safe. That means prioritizing health and safety and not taking risks.

We don’t have to go back to shul just yet.

Don’t get me wrong. Synagogues are essential. Worshipping with a minyan in shul has tremendous religious value. I admire anyone who is motivated to join the community three times a day in synagogue services. I feel for those who are missing out on their routine, and, in particular, empathize with mourners whose commitment to memorializing loved ones through reciting Kaddish has been interrupted.

At the same time, Jewish law prioritizes life and health.

Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 328:2) states:

“For someone who has a dangerous illness, it is a commandment to break Shabbat  for him. One who hurries to do this is praised. One who asks about this is a murderer.”

When there is danger, we break Shabbat. We do not ask questions.

Covid-19 is dangerous, and there is a lot that we still don’t know about the disease and how it spreads. Even with all the precautions in the world, we cannot be certain we’ll avoid getting sick or infecting others. Nothing in life is certain. But we don’t have to do more than is necessary.

I know there are synagogues raring to go. Rabbis and lay leadership are doing their due diligence to develop reopening guidelines, and we all want to go back. At the same time, we should stop and evaluate how essential it is that we go back versus the risks involved.

I think that, for now, we should not be hurrying back to shul.

People will argue that if people can go shopping or to a restaurant or to the beach then they can go to shul. They certainly can. There is, however, no religious imperative that makes this an obligation. If you want to go, go. Make sure you are safe and follow all necessary social distancing and safety guidelines. (All too often, we hear of these guidelines being flouted in a religious setting.)

Staying home is perfectly acceptable as well. If an individual is concerned in the slightest about attending services once a synagogue reopens, stay home. We have already seen that reopened churches have been the cause of people getting sick. Can synagogues be sure it won’t happen there? Does it even pay to try?

Miynan is great, but it is not more important than one’s health and wellness. Shuls staying closed is an acceptable response during these uncertain times.

In recent days, Rabbi Mayer Twersky of Yeshiva University disseminated a cautionary note into the synagogue reopening discussions. He feels it is forbidden, at this time, to restart worshiping with a minyan. He writes:

“When speaking of opening synagogues at this time we must not look for so-called loopholes or so-called solutions which – at best – may mitigate but certainly will not eliminate the dangers of this disease. The Torah absolutely condemns and forbids acting in a way which – under any circumstances – may allow for the death of a Jew … It is possible to wait for prayer in synagogues, but it is impossible to return a Jewish life to the world.”

We pray for the safe reopening of our society and our beloved synagogues. We are making progress. Until we can feel confident and secure that everyone will be safe, we are also fulfilling God’s will be staying closed.

Slow down; don’t move too fast. Staying closed is a valid course of action. Most importantly, stay healthy.

About the Author
Rabbi Elie Weinstock is Rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York City. A believer in a Judaism that is accessible to all, he prefers "Just Judaism" to any denominational label.
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