Within the world of halakha, Jewish legal discussion, over the past 2,000 years, a process has been at work whereby our values (by which I mean moral, ethical, religious and theological values – anything we claim to hold up as important) are constantly in a state of refinement. The process frequently plays out as follows. A scenario is set up in which a binary choice must be made between upholding one or the other of two values.
Sages then advance arguments, grounded in scripture and tradition, as to which is the proper choice to make. Whichever choice wins out becomes halakha – the normative Jewish way of moving through the world. And by iterating this process over and over, we refine our communal answer to the question – What are our most important values?
Over the entirety of that discussion, the singular value that has always won out over other important, but lesser concerns has been pikuach nefesh, the preservation of human life. In a classic example from the Mishnah, the scenario is: debris has fallen and buried a person, such that we do not know whether they are alive or dead. The rabbis rule that even on the Sabbath, when such labor is prohibited under strict penalty, we work to clear the debris and rescue the person because potential danger to human life overrides the laws of Shabbat.
Over these past several weeks, an analogous scenario has taken shape. The spread of COVID-19 has necessitated taking extraordinary steps to remain physically separate from one another in order to slow transmission of the virus. This has put Jewish communities in a difficult position.
A significant proportion of Jewish religious observance is designed intentionally to bring individuals together. For example, there are prayers and rituals that can only be read or performed in the presence of a minyan, a quorum of ten or more adult Jews. These include not only central elements of regular worship services, such as reading aloud from the Torah scroll, but also life cycle rituals like funerals.
As the Rabbi of my community, making the choice to suspend all congregational gatherings of every kind has been painful but clear. We do not tolerate even the possibility that lives may be put at risk as a result of Jewish religious observance. And yet, interpersonal and communal relationships are where Judaism happens. It's not that ten people are really required to read from the Torah – a person can open up a book and study at any time. It's that reading our sacred texts aloud in community transforms that act into one of religious devotion, and transforms the relationship between readers and listeners into one of common valuation and shared understanding. Connecting with one another is how we experience the sacred – it's how we lift up the ordinary and find in it a sense of meaning and purpose.
So my message to my community and to you is this: practice both physical distancing and social connection.
It is absolutely essential that we make the responsible decision to stay home as much as possible, and take all possible precautions when we do need to go out. And at the same time, this experience of global pandemic is going to be hard for everyone. We need each other. We must find ways to connect socially with others even when physical presence is impossible. So call someone, video chat someone, call out to your neighbor over your fence. Do not allow the spiritual bonds that bind us to be severed, no matter what.
Rabbi Phil Bressler was ordained in June 2018 by the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Boston, where he also earned his MA in Jewish Studies. He serves as the rabbi of Beit Am-Mid-Willamette Valley Jewish Community, located in Corvallis.
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