Will the Lay-Rabbinic Relationship Post-Coronavirus Be Any Different?

Many of us are trying to find some meaning in this pandemic, searching for signs that the world may become a better place afterwards.  A very popular YouTube video came out this week by Tom Roberts, entitled “The Great Realisation.”  It is a bedtime story that a father tells his child a number of years in the future about this pandemic.  The story that the father tells the child is that before this pandemic, the world was one “of waste and wonder, of poverty and plenty.”  The world was one where “families stopped talking” and children “felt alone.”  We didn’t care enough about the environment, and about dangerous behaviors like drinking, smoking and gambling.  However, after the pandemic, people started to become more appreciative, “clapping to say thank you, and calling their mums.”  We began to live life in a much simpler fashion.  “Some people started dancing, some were singing, some were baking.”  After the pandemic, “Old habits became extinct, and they made way for the new.  And every simple act of kindness was now given its due.”  And that is the hope and that is dream.  Our world and our community have suffered so many tragedies from this pandemic, so we are looking for some meaning and we hope some good will emerge.  It will not erase the pain, but it will provide some path forward.

In a recent New York Times opinion piece, David Brooks points to the fact that America is so united now, with 98 percent of Democrats and 82% of Republicans supporting social-distancing rules and 89% of Republicans and 89% of Democrats supporting bipartisan federal aid packages.  In fact, there is tremendous unity on so many issues relating to the pandemic.  He argues that the pandemic has been a massive humanizing force and Americans all across the political spectrum are responding with generosity and solidarity.  He concludes his piece by arguing that, “[t]he job ahead is to make this unity last.”  If we can emerge from this pandemic more unified, then perhaps that can provide some meaning and a directive as to how to move forward. Perhaps seeing the great goals we have in common will lead even those of us who typically disagree to look past our differences and trust one another as we all work together in their pursuit.

In our Modern Orthodox community, I wonder whether the relationship between Modern Orthodox rabbis and community members will change.  Rabbi Tzvi Sinensky wrote an article arguing that for years, a growing rift has developed between these rabbis and community members, particularly millennials.  However, it seems that that relationship may be shifting now.  In fact, there seems to have been great respect for the rabbinic community during this pandemic.  Perhaps surprisingly, despite the fact that the rabbinic leadership ruled strictly against Zoom sedarim except in certain circumstances relating to potential pikuach nefesh (life threatening) situations, the leadership has been largely perceived as sensitive to the needs of the community, especially the vulnerable and the homebound.  Rabbi Sinensky argued that once trust built up between the rabbis and the communities, community members were willing to trust their rabbis even in situations when the rabbis were strict, because the rabbis came across as empathic individuals who based their decisions on their deep concern for halachah and not some personal agenda.  Rabbi Sinensky is hopeful that an increased level of trust will continue to flourish between the Modern Orthodox rabbinic leadership and laypeople.

I hope he is correct.  I hope that in the future, we will look back on this time as one when a new level of trust was achieved between rabbis and laypeople.  At the same time, I think we have a challenging path ahead. Some of the significant issues that currently divide some members of the Modern Orthodox community and the rabbinic leadership are different than the issues that have arisen during the pandemic.  It is true that the rabbinic leadership demonstrated empathy in many situations, even allowing rabbis to keep their phones on during yom tov to answer necessary phone calls.  But these were issues relating to potential pikuach nefesh, life-threatening situations, and once the rabbinic leadership was made aware of the potential pikuach nefesh situations, they had ample precedent to be lenient in Hilchot Shabbat or Yom Tov.  Perhaps the only novelty of their positions was the fact that they considered mental health to potentially be a matter of life and death in many instances. In other words, it was not a challenge for the rabbis to express empathy in this situation and for individuals to receive it. There was a compelling halachic option for the rabbis to pursue.  But outside of the issues related to the pandemic, the current issues that divide some in the modern orthodox community and their rabbinic leadership involve counter-cultural issues, like women’s roles and sexual orientation.  With regard to these issues, I think that there is still a fundamental divide over some purely halachic and some not purely halachic concerns, that are much harder to bridge. In these cases, where there is no easily obtainable, halachically sanctioned “solution,” can we still learn to trust one another? Can congregants see their rabbis as empathic, even when those rabbis cannot or will not say what they want to hear? And can rabbis view their community members as asking questions that stem from earnest faith and a deep desire to reconcile challenging conflicts?

I don’t know the future, but I believe that a strong rabbinic-lay relationship depends on continued communication, real and perceived empathy on both sides and, perhaps most of all, genuine respect for the other side even if you disagree on fundamental issues.  As David Brooks pointed out, this pandemic has shown us that democrats and republicans agree on many basic issues.  We live in a society that highlights divisiveness, rather than areas of agreement.  And I think that is partly true in our religious world, on both sides.  But maybe we use this pandemic as a restart, to truly try to understand each other and respect each other as seekers of the truth. Maybe we can accept each other as empathic, sensitive individuals who are each trying to balance our view of halacha with basic human needs. Maybe then we truly can emerge from this pandemic with some meaning and a path forward.  Or to paraphrase Tom Roberts, maybe old habits will become extinct and they will make their way for the new.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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