We – and the whole world – find ourselves in an extremely challenging and almost unprecedented (in our generation) situation. We are facing a pandemic that we do not fully understand, and trying to effectively respond with very incomplete knowledge. Right now, health officials, medical authorities, as well as state, local, and federal governments are working to minimize transmission of the virus. There is general consensus that we have not yet seen the peak of the pandemic, and we are likely to experience considerably more cases over the next few weeks.
However, one of the most important and effective tools in mitigating transmission within the community is “social distancing,” and we see it being implemented in ever stronger patterns. Borders are being closed, entire cities are in lockdown, and many people are practicing self-quarantine. Although the cancelling of services and minyanim seems an extreme step, it is no longer considered so. Already last week the New Jersey Board of Rabbis (after consultation with health authorities) recommended that all synagogues close their doors, a cautionary practice already enacted in a number of New Jersey and New York communities. Such a practice is spreading across North American synagogues, Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, and Orthodox. The Center for Disease Control now recommends gatherings of no more than 10 persons, a number being used in many places in the world. This number is particularly designed to protect those in high-risk categories – that includes many of our schul’s membership.
We must begin to look at our responses to this pandemic from the perspective of Jewish values. Therefore, the “extreme” action of canceling services and minyanim is actually a natural act of Piqu’ah Nephesh, saving a life, one of the highest values of our tradition that supersedes most of Jewish law. Indeed, in the Talmudic discussion of this topic (Bavli Yoma 84b) our sages make the statement: And any matter of doubt as to danger to life overrides the prohibitions of Shabbat? Said R. Judah said Rab, “Not only of a doubt concerning danger to human life on this Shabbat did they speak, but even of a doubt concerning danger to human life on some other Shabbat later on.” The Talmud continues to say: Our Rabbis taught: We tend to matters involving [danger to] life on the Sabbath [even when it is necessary to violate Shabbat] and one who is quick to do so is praiseworthy. Nor does such a one need to obtain authorization from the court… In other words, to save a life we respond unquestioningly and promptly, and that is the behavior that is praised.
Indeed, we must take this pandemic very seriously, particularly when we still know so little. The bundling of strategies of social distancing: canceling or postponing large gatherings, closing schools & some businesses, canceling religious services, working from home, conducting meetings over the phone or the internet, as well as maintaining a thorough schedule of cleaning and closely following hygienic guidelines will keep both ourselves and others safe.