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Social distancing, modesty, and solidarity

When we distance ourselves from those we know, we protect people we'll never know, yet that same distance yields new ties, given that broad responsibility for all

The last few week has thrust us all into a frightening new reality. Coronavirus, and COVID-19, have permeated our lives like a flash flood, upending routines, exposing the fragilities – and regular imbecilities – of our social and especially political structures, and challenging us all to rethink how to relive our lives, so that we can go on, literally, living our lives. The tool we are most being urged to use is the creation of spaces between people known as social distancing. A world built on paradox — humans, social animals to our core, must now survive by a kind of deliberate asociality, forswearing the endless moments of contact that knit society together: “no hugs, no handshakes.”

The logistical challenges of social distancing are mind-boggling enough, but the moral and spiritual challenges are piercing too. It’s all so separating, severing, alienating – where in all this is the good?

The good is still there – yes, through our bodies – in targeted philanthropic efforts, the technical workarounds we are creating (livestream prayer services and Torah classes) – and in our minds, and hearts. And I suggest that we think of these practices now forced upon us in terms of two key Jewish, and human values, tsniut and solidarity.

Tsniut, literally “inner humility,” has in recent decades, and especially in response to the 1960’s sexual revolutions, taken on for many the meaning of sexual modesty, and regularly been taken to extremes of gender segregation in pubic, and the policing of women’s bodies by disciplining sleeve lengths and hemlines. Which is all the more tragic, since at its root it is a beautiful idea, of humility, inwardness – as an ethical relationship, for the sake of others.

The prophet Micah (6:8) said: You have been told, O human, what is good, and what your God the Eternal seeks from you, but to do justice, love kindness mercy and walk humbly with your God.

We know, in our bones, the basics of human goodness – keeping the lines of right and wrong that we call justice, freeing our wells of compassion for one another we call kindness, and doing so in steady awareness of our limitations, before one another and God – and that knowledge of our limitation is what frees us truly do for others the best justice and kindness we can.

My wife, Tamar Biala, in her study of tsniut education in Israeli schools (and the repressive extremes to which it has regularly led), To Teach Tsniut with Tsniut, has offered a new understanding of tsniut – as an ethical relationship of mutuality, in which I check a part of myself not to erase myself, but in order to enable you to be present, and flourish. And you check a part of yourself, so that I too can be present. Tsniut makes possible the space for the meeting of I and Thou, of me and you. Without that space we cancel one another out and none of us can live. Yet if there is nothing between us but empty space we cannot live either.

Configuring, tracing, and retracing that space between us, so that across its clearing, we can enable one another to live, is something we do every day. And COVID-19 is forcing us to think harder about doing it in a globalized world, in which it is precisely our deep interconnectedness in time and space is bringing new threat and danger.

Tsniut in the time of COVID-19 invites us to think anew about solidarity. Today, and for the near future, coming together brings death and staying apart saves life. Crucially, it saves the lives of people we don’t know and will never know. This will be very, very hard to do. All of us will have to choose, struggle, and make peace, in ways we haven’t before. And the empty spaces we create will be the new arenas for the ties that bind us together, as we each take responsibility for ourselves, and for all.

In the teachings of the Jewish mystical tradition, Lurianic Kabbalah in particular, the very first act of God’s creation, was tsimtsum, the willful receding of an infinite God in order to make possible the creation of a finite other, to make possible a kind of existence different from His own.

We now know as never before in our lifetimes that all life depends on me, you, us, stepping back to make possible lives and existences different from our own. Social distancing is a quiet life-giving kind of solidarity, taking a step back to literally give breathing space to others, people you don’t know and will never meet, but whose lives depend on you. It’s something COVID-19 is teaching us. And we’d all better learn it soon.

Yehudah Mirsky is Professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis, author of Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution and was a Red Cross chaplain after 9-11. He tweets @YehudahMirsky

About the Author
Yehudah Mirsky is Professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis and on the faculty of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies. He served in the Clinton administration as special advisor in the U.S. State Department's human rights bureau. He studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshiva College and received rabbinic ordination in Jerusalem.
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