My first conscious encounter with the US Constitution came in September of my junior year of high school. We had recently moved from Monsey, New York to Charlottesville, Virginia. I had gone from Ramapo Senior High School (1,800 students, 1,400 Jews) to Albemarle Senior High School (1,800 students, 3 Jews).
Our family attended High Holy Days services at the only temple in town. The day after Rosh Hashanah, I presented my homeroom teacher with a religious excuse note from my parents explaining my absence the previous two days. I was immediately sent to the office to see our principal, Mr. Hurt.
He read the note and in his soft southern accent said to me, “I know of no church that requires its members to attend services during the week.”
That was the beginning of my religious odyssey in the Charlottesville public school system. My father, who had a law degree, later explained the complicated issues concerning the separation of church and state, and the protections and liberties each (sometimes) enjoys.
And so we come to the pandemic, with the Haredi and Chasidic communities creating super-spreader events out of weddings and funerals.
I have condemned the Haredi and Chasidic leadership for flaunting mask wearing and social distancing, and enabling these functions. Yet, I support the recent US Supreme Court decision limiting New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s authority to mandate limits on religious functions.
There is a story told of Rav Salanter (the founder of the Musar movement) concerning a once wealthy but later impoverished man. Ashamed of his new circumstances and unwilling to let anyone know his condition, he eventually starved to death. Rav Salanter declared the community innocent, saying: “That man died of his own arrogance (and therefore was declared a suicide). Had he been willing to accept help he would not have died of hunger.”
The Code of Jewish law teaches: “Whoever cannot survive without taking Tzedakah such as an old, sick or greatly suffering individual, but who stubbornly refuses to accept aid, is guilty of murdering himself (Yoreh Deah 255:2).”
What is the purpose of law? Law functions to maintain order, resolve disputes, and establish standards within society. However, it is also tasked to protect individual rights and maximize freedom.
And what is freedom? Immanuel Levinas (the most famous Jewish philosopher no one has ever heard of) describes it as the ability to choose how you will be fettered. The Jews at Sinai had free will to choose to follow the Torah. Once they accepted the Torah they became “bound” (or enslaved, if you wish) to its laws.
Those ignoring mandates to wear masks and keep social distance are attempting suicide. Many of them will be unsuccessful and perhaps they believe that attending to a Mitzvah will protect them.
But the collateral damage of these super-spreader events will kill the elderly, the immunocompromised who did not attend the events, and afflict many who will have lingering effects for years. We call that “depraved indifference to human life,” if not “manslaughter.”
Yet, the Supreme Court is correct when it steps in to protect religious organizations from secular authority. Such action would create dangerous precedent that would open the door to abuses our community has suffered through for centuries.
Years ago I lost a member of my congregation in a tragic traffic accident. The fact that she was driving 90 mph without a seatbelt doomed her. It was her wont to speed without safety procedures. It worked for years, until it didn’t.
I also had a serious traffic accident. Had I not been wearing my seat belt, I would have been seriously injured – if not killed.
If the Haredi and Chasidic communities insist on driving without seat belts in this pandemic – we can’t stop them.
So the questions remain for these communities. Does the God of the Haredim and Chasidim require them to risk lives for a wedding or a funeral? Or does God require them to “live by these Mitzvot” (Leviticus 18:5)?
As for Mr. Hurt, my high school principal, I find myself having sympathy for him. He must have looked at my religious excuse and thought I was living on Mars. But my presence in the school broadened awareness and sensitized (some) to Jews and Judaism.