I woke up on the morning Taanit Esther to a Facebook post in a group I am on. A person was looking for a leniency not to fast. I am not a certified halachik authority -but I generally know where to find halachik rulings by certified authorities on the internet. I found one relating to the Taanit Esther, and posted it to the group for the person to see.
Later on in the day, in the middle of class, I started feeling extremely ill. I realized that I might need to avail myself of the same halachik ruling I had looked up earlier. I ran out of class, went to the local corner store, bought myself some bread, cheese and water. Not wanting to eat in class, out of respect for classmates who were fasting, I sat on a bench and ate in the street. As passers-by looked, I wondered if there was a problem of “maarat ayin”: I was a visibly religious Jew, eating on a fast day. But then I realized, that this was actually a positive example: If I believe that, under certain circumstances, people who are not feeling well can break their fast on Taanit Esther, then I had an obligation to put my mouth where my halacha is, by eating when I myself felt sick. This is because I believe that the loopholes in halacha for sick people are not there as a begrudging accommodation, but rather, because health is a halachik value. Not only may a sick person break their fast on Taanit Esther, but, halachikally, they should, or perhaps even must, break their fast.*
This past Purim, I went to synagogue. I had some friends who chose not to, but I felt that, because I was reading, it was important for me to be there. I also was afraid that if healthy people who are not in quarantine stopped showing up to synagogue for the entire duration of the Coronavirus crisis, there would be no communal infrastructure left when the crisis was over.
I spent much of the time in synagogue explaining to people that I would not be hugging them, because I was adhering to official guidelines about limiting physical contact in order to prevent the spread of the disease. As a halachik Jew, I believe I am obligated to obey public health guidelines, in keeping with the maxim of “venishmartem meod lenafshoteichem”** – and you will guard yourselves mightily. This is generally seen as an injunction to “guard” health. As a religious Jew, I also believe that I am also obligated to be “mekabel kol adam beseiver panim yafot”** – to greet people cheerfully and offer verbal, non-physical affection to those I see. I am also obligated to visit the sick, which in the case of Coronavirus, means virtually reaching out to people I know who are in quarantine.
That is why, when the Israeli government guidelines came out banning all gatherings over 100 people in order to prevent the spread of Coronavirus, I decided to skip synagogue for the next few weeks. This does not mean that I won’t be praying; in fact, in these times, prayer is more important than ever. But it does mean that I will be praying from the comfort and safety of my living room. I do not see this as a dereliction of my religious duty, but rather, as a fulfillment of it.
I do not believe that all people are obligated to stay home. There might be mourners saying kaddish who feel a special imperative to attend services. There might be people who feel that it is only when they are in synagogue on Friday night, singing about the Sabbath Queen, that they are able to truly connect with God.
But I do think we are all obligated to take the guidelines into account. For some of us, this might mean showing up to synagogue every other week, in order to try to keep the number of attendees below 100. For others, it might mean going to synagogue, but looking around the room as they enter, and being ready to step outside and go home if the room has over 100 people. In addition, if the room allows one to do so, it might be preferable to space oneself out, to avoid physical proximity to others. (Physical proximity is thought to be conducive to the spread of COVID19.)
It’s easy to say, “I will show up every week. I am sure others will stay home.” But the same way that, during times of health, we have an obligation to show up and not simply assume that others will do so, so too, during times of public health crisis, we have an obligation to stay home and not assume that other people will be the ones to take on the burden of avoiding public prayer.
But again, I am not a rabbi.**** I am simply a religious Jew, trying to deal with a crisis that is unfolding around me, as I pray that soon, we find ourselves once more in healthy times, when we feel religiously obligated to attend synagogue, rather than to stay away from it.
In the meantime, I will continue to pray for this pandemic to pass. But I will choose to do so from my living room.
*On other fast days the rules are stricter. The strictest fast is Yom Kippur.
**Deutoronomy 4:15. This is seen as a general injunctive against unhealthy behaviors. For example, it has been cited as a religious reason to avoid smoking cigarettes.
***”Shamai said…Greet every person with a pleasant countenance” (Avot 1:15)
****For the sake of full disclosure: I do hope to be a rabbi one day. I am currently in rabbinical school. But I definitely do not feel qualified to give public psak to people I don’t know on the internet, which is why I want to be careful to make it clear that this is simply my personal perspective.