JTA Staff Report
When we recently asked for stories about how local Jewish communities are adapting to the public health threat, we received plenty of examples of changes that are underway, from “Spock” greetings instead of handshakes to chopsticks as Torah pointers.
We also got a request for spiritual guidance. So we reached out to several rabbis around the world and asked them to offer their advice. We’ll update this page with additional responses as they come in — and if you’re a Jewish spiritual leader with words of your own to add, you can email us.
A 6-part spiritual prescription
At this moment, we want to protect ourselves and our families; this is human nature. From a Jewish perspective, from a social justice perspective, from a human perspective, we can’t descend into pointed tribalism at a time when we need to come together as a collective of mind and soul. The coronavirus is a huge burden placed on humanity, but one that can be handled through shared action, compassion and a desire to see this disease contained before more lives are needlessly lost.
— Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz (Read Rabbi Yanklowitz’s full op-ed)
A 7-part guide to staying sane
“What’s a simple daily routine you care about? Every night at about midnight, we learn in the Talmud, King David woke up to study. Every morning, I wake up and make coffee. (Same same, right?) Water in the kettle. Good quality beans into the grinder. Aeropress. Half and half. For you, that simple moment might be washing your hair, texting your sister after work, or listening to The Daily. Keep that up, even if everything else feels off. Good times and bad, some things should stay the same.”
— Rabbi Emily Cohen (Click here to read Rabbi Cohen’s full piece on our sister site, Alma)
Rugged individualism is not the Jewish way
In response to a 1983 doctors’ strike in Israel, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, former Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, emphasized that the responsibility for providing health care ultimately lies with the state. Basing himself on a Talmudic ruling that holds communal leadership liable for any deaths that result from their failure to take care of needed repairs (Moed Katan 5a), he wrote, “the responsibility of the court or the communal leadership is not limited to bodily harm that they cause directly … the government may not excuse itself from its responsibility toward the sick since they government is responsible for the health of the people.” (Assia vol. 5)
This assertion — that the communal leadership takes responsibility for the overall health of the citizens — is consistent with millennia of Jewish law that insist that the community take responsibility for the health and welfare of its members — whether through building necessary infrastructure to care for physical and spiritual needs, through tzedaka and through laws intended to eliminate exploitation. It’s also consistent with the lived practice of Jewish communities, which have long established communal welfare and health systems; and of the state of Israel, founded as a social democracy.
Goren’s ruling, however, runs counter to one prominent strain in American culture, namely the ethos of every person for themselves, without concern for our responsibility to the broader society, or for the overall impact of our choices.
The novel coronavirus has taught us that it’s impossible to separate ourselves from the greater world, and that our own personal health and safety depends on the health and safety of the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society. If anything positive comes of this terrifying pandemic, it should be a remaking of the social fabric of our society such that we collectively take responsibility for the health and well-eing of every member of our society. This means ensuring health care, paid sick leave, and increased food assistance; and investing in a stimulus and job creation package that helps middle- and low-income people rather than just bailing out airlines and other major corporations.
The emphasis in Jewish law and lived tradition on collective responsibility for our neighbors and our society is countercultural in a country built on rugged individualism. But the novel coronavirus has taught us the impossibility of fending for ourselves. A recommitment to communal responsibility is the only way to protect ourselves and each other.
— Rabbi Jill Jacobs
Safety is sacrosanct. Health is foremost.
The news today can be especially spiritually unsettling and alarming in nature. When our community in New York has been struck with a plague that prevents so many of us from gathering in physical contact, how ought we react?
Upholding the cautionary measures decreed by health officials and authorities must be seen then as fulfilling the highest religious commandment: pikuach nefesh, saving human life. If you have symptoms of illness, including fever, coughing, stomach bug or any other sickness, it is a mitzvah to stay in quarantine.
It was Yom Kippur 1846 — the cholera epidemic was at its height — when Rabbi Yisrael Salanter allegedly rose to the pulpit, washed his hands publicly and made a blessing as he ate bread on our calendar’s most sacred day. The Jewish community feared trespassing communal and religious norms then, but Rabbi Salanter reminded the Jewish community: In light of life-threatening illness, eating food on Yom Kippur wasn’t breaking the Torah law, it was upholding it.
When confronted with life or death, Jews must always emphatically choose life. This has been the Jewish way since the beginning of time.
Furthermore, now, as in times past, will be a period where we will see the most important innovating responses.
We witnessed this just last week when SAR Academy offered online classes for hundreds of students, studying Hebrew, welcoming Shabbat and maintaining semblances of normalcy.
We witnessed this in wartime when Saddam Hussein’s Scud missile rockets rained on Israel, Jews celebrated Purim in bunkers.
When the AIDS epidemic ravished the gay community, Congregation Beit Simchat Torah still gathered with Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum leading into uncharted territory.
When Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav wrote, “There is no despair in the world,” we ought to reflect: What is he talking about? Rebbe Nachman, a depressive, mourned the death of his own son and lived in a time of great political turmoil for the Jewish people. Was Rebbe Nachman unfamiliar with despair or delusional?
Certainly not. He was offering us a life approach and philosophy. “The whole world is a narrow bridge; the main principle — do not fear.”
Safety is sacrosanct. Health is foremost.
And remember the mantra, the trope that has accompanied our people since Passover days: Nevertheless, Jews persisted.
— Rabbi Avram Mlotek, co-founder of Base Hillel, director of spiritual life for its international program and rabbi of its Manhattan site
Stay inside for the sake of others
“I write this at my kitchen table, covered in yet-to-be-sorted toiletries and food. I’m planning to stay in, and you should, too. Because it’s not necessarily you who will suffer from going out — it is probably someone else.
May we observe the next weeks in a period of isolation — it will be mournful and hard. But may that period be one that allows the plague to lift. That allows a return to revelry and celebration, a time when we can be deeply and blessedly irresponsible.
Today, hold back, for all of us, so that tomorrow, we can release.”
— Rabbi Eric Woodward (Click here to read his full Facebook post)
The spiritual potential of quarantine
When I landed in Israel and found out that because I attended the AIPAC Policy Conference I’d have to be quarantined, I was surprised to learn the Hebrew word for quarantine was bidud. The word immediately triggered my obsession with the sad Megillat Eicha (Lamentations) that we read on the Ninth of Av.
For an unknown reason, whenever I’m chazzan and I have to choose a tune, my brain automatically chooses the morbid dirge of Eicha. This can lead to a comical or embarrassing scene. The first words of Eicha, “Lonely sits the city once great with people! She that was great among nations has become like a widow,” speak to the loneliness of destroyed Jerusalem. The word “lonely” in Hebrew is badad, the same word used for quarantine in modern Hebrew.
Being alone in quarantine, devoid of friends, family, co-workers and community, a person is truly lonely. Talking on the phone, messaging and even video chatting is no substitute for being in the physical presence of others. There is no replacement for the hug, kiss or even the handshake. Just having others around gives a person a sense of security and comfort. Quarantine forces a painful loneliness. For the Jew who loves the mitzvot and rituals of their religion, especially the communal ones, the loneliness is compounded.
Yet the loneliness of companionship can also create an opportunity. The loneliness of others creates the solitude of the person with God. All alone, a person is able to commune with God as never before. God is eternally listening to our voices, and God awaits our prayers. The silence of bidud provides a person the opportunity to connect to God on the deepest of levels. Without the pressures of work, a schedule or family chores, a person can turn to God, pour their heart out and deepen their relationship with the Creator. The gaping hole of spirituality left by the absence of ritual can be filled with a more unique connection to God.
Our Rabbis tell us that if we are homebound we can still pray with the community by praying at the same time as the community. The internet allows us to listen to shiurim (Torah classes) with others, and many of us even listened to live streams of Megillah.
Quarantine is a challenge previously unthought of by our Sages. It is lonely and depressing. Those feelings are natural and valid. All of us in quarantine are feeling them. But taken in the right way, it can provide time and opportunity to connect with God, rethink values and recommit to the priorities that are important to us.
— Rabbi Uri Pilichowski