The Only Appropriate Chumra, Right Now

Two rabbinic anecdotes that may have bearing on the current Coronavirus matzav.

The first involves Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, who once had to adjudicate a case of an ill individual eating on Yom Kippur.  When asked if he was thereby being meikel/lenient—regarding the fast, Rabbi Soloveitchik retorted that he was rather being machmir/stringent—regarding pikuach nefesh/preserving life.

The second involves Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, who once found himself in a mincha minyan in an unfamiliar town, and, having no access to a siddur, started to peer over the shoulder of a neighbor, who—obviously not realizing the stature whom he was addressing—began to loudly upbraid the Rabbi for disturbing his kavana/concentration.

The first anecdote illustrates how, in the face of the need to make unpleasant choices in religion or ritual, sometimes the emphasis is on the wrong thing, and the crucial element of timing is ignored.  When—as the overwhelming majority of medical authorities have proclaimed—public gatherings can be a danger to life, that admonition becomes THE operating religious/halachic principle.  (Don’t take my word for it.)  Those who feel the overwhelming need to perform other mitzvos in groups at that point should consider that it then becomes an exercise in something other than a genuine spiritual fulfillment: it becomes self-serving.  This is a time when all reflexes to be machmir should be directed toward whatever leads to pikuach nefesh, like the Rabbi Soloveichik story.

The second anecdote was told by one of my pulpit rabbis as part of his Yom Kippur address that year.  The moral, according to him: when you use mitzvos to hurt another person, that is the definition of chilul Hashem/desecration of the Name.  The numbers of sick and dying in heavily religious conclaves that ostensibly seem to be reluctant to halt all group gatherings should serve as a wake up call: these gatherings have caused continuing grievous harm to themselves and others.

There have been complaints that those outside these communities don’t understand that their resistance can be attributed to the lack of “access to information” or how “generational trauma has a huge effect on my community’s ability to accept extreme measures imposed from the outside”, and therefore “it’s natural that leaders are extremely reluctant to accept such measures.”   Said leaders who have the ability to influence communal behaviors in a way that might help end this crisis need only recall Esther 4:14:

ומי יודע אם־לעת כזאת הגעת למלכות

“…who knows, perhaps you have attained [your] position for just such a crisis.”

About the Author
Jon Taub is an ex-Upper West Sider, now-married Riverdalean who has two MA's, plays three instruments, and consults for biostartups.
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