In a column in Tablet Magazine, Liel Leibovitz scolds rabbis and synagogue boards who limit synagogue attendance during this second year of Covid High Holidays.
Leibovitz correctly sees this moment as an inflection point. But his diatribe is misplaced. He has misused his international platform to grandstand instead of save lives. This is a grave moral lapse. He seems to be taking his cues from governors in those states that are losing thousands to the grave – dying on the altar of “personal choice.”
But Leibovitz, I presume, has not officiated at dozens more funerals the last two years than in any other year. Leibowitz, I presume, has not stood alone at graveside, iPhone in hand, chanting El Malei. Leibowitz, I presume, has not stood next to children, just months past their bar mitzvah, learning the Kaddish one word at a time for their 40-something parents. Leibowitz, I presume, has not called upon congregants in hospital hallways when there were no beds left in the ICU.
Getting vaccinated prevents severe illness, hospitalization, and death. That is the consensus of the overwhelming majority of scientists and medical experts. But instead of encouraging every Jew to get vaccinated so that every synagogue, temple and shul can be as safe as possible, Leibovitz chooses to scold every rabbi and communal leader charged with making these fraught decisions.
The physicians in my congregation tell me of viral mutations that are making the unvaccinated sicker more quickly and at a younger age than last summer. I have witnessed another viral strain – anti-vax brainwashing – that has caused their surviving relatives to ignore their physicians’ advice to get vaccinated even as their parents struggle to breathe on ventilators.
Getting a vaccine is one of the few things in the Jewish world that every single denomination agrees on. The Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly has unanimously passed a responsum requiring all Jews to get vaccinated. The Reform Movement has written similarly about this obligation. The Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America have emphasized “the conclusion of our poskim (religious decisors) that, pursuant to the advice of your personal health care provider, the Torah obligation to preserve our lives and the lives of others requires us to vaccinate for COVID-19 as soon as a vaccine becomes available.”
Leading exemplars of Modern Orthodoxy have spoken loudly in favor of universal vaccination. Rabbi Asher Weiss, a world-wide authority on Jewish medical ethics, has been forceful on the subject. Though he stops short of saying vaccination falls into the legal category of “obligation,” he writes that “it is certainly appropriate for each person to be vaccinated” and views it as an embarrassment and shame that segments of the Jewish community remain unvaccinated.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, over 25 years before COVID, supported vaccines generally. Chabad in fact has sought to dissociate itself from rabbis who opposie COVID vaccination.
When Rabbi Michoel Green, a Chabad rabbi in Massachusetts, promoted anti-vaccine news, he was dismissed by Chabad. After the Chabad rabbi at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst promoted anti-vaccine beliefs, the national organization quickly distanced itself from him and promoted vaccination. At least one Chabad synagogue has opened its doors to become a vaccination site!
I agree with Leiboviz that screen-based Judaism is deadly for our future. In addition to the Covid crisis, we are experiencing a mental health crisis and a spiritual health crisis. We need to find creative ways to safely bring Jews together and to be with one another, or as Leibowitz writes, to cry out to God in community.
If he has critiques, let them be that we did not teach enough bar and bat mitzvah students how to blow the shofar so every neighborhood with Jews can experience a safe shofar blowing. Let him criticize rabbis for not teaching enough people to lead musaf or to read Torah so that we can offer safe, smaller gatherings around the country.
Let him criticize the Jewish community for not turning every JCC, synagogue, temple, shul and Jewish Family Service organization into a vaccination center. If he wants to rant, let him rant that the Jewish community did not collectively work toward a goal of 100% vaccination both within our walls – and among all those we can influence.
He writes: “Comfort us with the eternal Jewish story: We worship God, and He, in turn, protects us; we stand together in our tradition, and it sustains us.”
We also come from a tradition that commands us to build barriers around our roofs and pits and warns us to not stand under a rickety ladder.
God is protecting us: God gave us the brilliant men and women who discovered how to limit the harm of the novel coronavirus through these miraculous vaccines.
In this week’s Torah portion, Moses scolds the Israelites: “When such a one hears the words of these sanctions, he may fancy himself immune, thinking, ‘I shall be safe, though I follow my own willful heart’—to the utter ruin of moist and dry alike.” (Deut. 29:18).
Liel, believe me, every rabbi, cantor and communal leader wants to be with as many Jews as possible this Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. But why take them to task for trying to save lives while inspiring souls? Try using your bully pulpit to get needles into arms. That’s what will bring Jews – living Jews –back into shuls.