This week, I joined two new WhatsApp groups: “Corona Rabbis” and “Corona Volunteers.” The first is a group of rabbis dedicated to finding ways to enable Israelis to attend synagogue services and minyanim while adhering to ever-changing health precautions. The second is a group of residents of the town in which I live that is coordinating emergency help for the elderly and people at-risk — those who need food, medicine, medical equipment, and more. Each time I get a message from one of these groups (on average, every 15 minutes), I ask myself, “Which group is expressing the more authentically Jewish response to the situation in which we find ourselves? Which is the more pressing at this critical time?”
While there are clear, religious and halachic reasons to pray in a minyan three times a day (something I have done my entire adult life), I believe the requirement for quorum prayer is not essential under current circumstances. Rather, the life-threatening situation in which we find ourselves is precisely the moment when we should be invoking the halachic principle that the preservation of human life overrides religious prohibitions. That is why I closed my synagogue earlier this week, and discouraged my members from attending other synagogues or home minyanim, despite an exception in the Israeli Health Ministry’s guidelines that allows “religious communities” to gather.
The countless hours the “Corona Rabbis” are poring over group messages, and Israel’s chief rabbis are devoting to the issue of how one can pray in a minyan during a pandemic are distractions from today’s genuine human needs—the physical and emotional needs of people who have caught the coronavirus, and of the elderly and others who are most vulnerable to its spread. Rather than using their stature to remind Israelis and Jews everywhere that Judaism is, above all else, about the sanctification of human life, and the preservation of human dignity, our rabbinic leaders are focused on legal technicalities, are distracted from human suffering, loneliness, and fear, and, apparently, are willing to encourage people to place themselves in potentially dangerous environments.
In his classic work, Halakhic Man, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik cites Rabbi Hayyim of Brisk, who said that the function of a rabbi is “to address the grievances of those who are abandoned and alone, to protect the dignity of the poor, and to save the oppressed from the hands of his oppressor.” Rabbi Soloveitchik continues, “The anguish of the poor, the despair of the helpless and humiliated outweigh many many commandments.” At this precarious time, when human life and human dignity are at stake, I implore Israel’s Chief Rabbis and the larger religious establishment to heed Rabbi Soloveitchik’s words, to cancel all religious services, and to focus on helping the helpless.