Orthodox response to COVID-19: Life is precious

Dear Rabbi Fried,

From newscasts I have seen it would seem that Orthodox Jews, who value the preciousness of life above the Shabbat or any other value, are not adhering to the most basic CDC regulations such as the wearing of a mask and gathering together en masse without protection. Is there a reason in Orthodoxy for this?

Robyn K.

Dear Robyn,

The general assumption in your question, that Orthodox Jews are not compliant with CDC regulations, could not be farther from the truth. The vast majority of Orthodox Jews throughout the U.S. and worldwide have been, and are, extremely careful and compliant, for exactly the reason you stated. The concept of pikuach nefesh, the supreme sanctity of life over all else, is a key driving force in Jewish law. As you mentioned, saving a life supersedes the sacred day of the Sabbath. This is true not only if the patient will, if saved, live to observe further Sabbaths. Even to prolong the patient’s life only for a few moments would override the laws of Shabbos; every moment of life is precious beyond the most hallowed of the mitzvos of the Torah. 

Locally, here in Dallas, the Orthodox rabbinate has been in constant contact with each other since the outset of COVID-19 via a WhatsApp group and frequent Zoom meetings, to discuss our joint efforts in running our synagogues and communities in the safest and healthiest manner possible, in consultation with health professionals who are experts in this field. 

This meant taking the extreme measure of shuttering our shuls for extended periods, painful as that was, because pikuach nefesh is supreme. Even now that most local Orthodox shuls are open, it is with the requirement of masks, social distancing, and many other protocols to enhance and ensure the safety of the synagogue experience. The mikvah (ritual bath) has had the most rigorous standards in place as well, to ensure the safety of both the users and the attendants.

This is not at all unique to Dallas but is the rule in Orthodox communities throughout most of the country and the world. 

I am fully cognizant that there have, unfortunately, been certain Orthodox communities which have been less than vigilant in their fulfillment of some of the protocols of COVID-19. Some of those communities have been lax due to a, perhaps, erroneous understanding that they have attained herd immunity by virtue of most of the community already having contracted COVID-19 in the early days of the pandemic, before it was really understood and CDC protocols put in place. For that reason those communities had, at the time, high infection percentages and, sadly, many losses. Health professionals have pointed out that members of those communities were the key donors of life-saving plasma to save countless others. The recent uptick in cases in some of the areas has exhibited the erroneous assumption of herd immunity, urging the members to return to COVID-19 protocols. 

Some of the greatest sages and scholars of Jewish law of our day have delivered a strong rebuke to anyone within the Orthodox community who does not take heed of this new wave and observe CDC regulations, stating that one who doesn’t do so should know they are “guilty of spilling blood.” Anyone not compliant before that rebuke hopefully has taken that to heart. It should be known that anyone who does not take the present situation very seriously is very much the exception and not the rule. 

A bigger concern I have is something far more insidious. The remarks uttered, time and time again, by Governor Cuomo of New York have made it sound like COVID-19 is a Jewish Orthodox problem, being contracted and spread mainly by Orthodox Jews. Former New York State Assemblyman the Hon. Dov Hikind has sounded the alarm that Cuomo’s remarks hark back to darker times in our history when we were accused as the spreaders of the black plague and other epidemics, leading to pogroms and great destruction. The more recent Nazi demonization of the Jews as a disease-ridden people led to our separation and ghettoization, and we know well where that eventually led — to the murder of 6 million of our people. 

Cuomo’s comments and obsession with the Orthodox Jewish community, which have no scientific basis and, nevertheless, have been picked up by the media nationwide, have created a situation which we need to be very wary of and keep our finger on the pulse of their effect. Our rocky diaspora history doesn’t allow us to take such statements and inferences lightly…

May our Jewish vigilance in the supreme value of life — pikuach nefesh — be evidenced throughout the country and the world, and may the scourge of the pandemic end quickly. May the vicissitudes and tragic losses of this time give us a greater appreciation for the preciousness of life. May this situation help us to realize that every moment of life is a gift and not to be taken for granted. May it give us the strength and wisdom to take advantage of every day and live life to the fullest — with our families, communities and God.

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