By Shirin Kaye
While authorities closed institutions worldwide due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, religious life also suffers from orders to practice social distancing. The lack of public gatherings threatens to weaken communities and hinder the observance of communal rituals.
Jewish authorities worldwide have been scrambling to keep their communities connected, keep traditions alive, and keep everyone healthy. Different rabbis and denominations have had varying approaches to this goal. Many Jewish communities turned to online sermons and services. Though most traditional Jews continued following the commandments at home, a few rabbis were of the opinion that following G-d’s word would provide a special form of protection, and therefore the shutting down of religious institutions was unnecessary and wrong. For example, large crowds attended some Hasidic weddings and funerals in Brooklyn, New York, during the pandemic, waiving public health regulations for the sake of monumental life-cycle celebrations. On the other hand, the vast majority of observant Jews believe that the religious legal principle of pikuach nefesh -- that one is allowed to break a commandment to save a life -- should compel Jews to stay home. In addition, Jewish law instructs people to follow the laws of the land to avoid ruining the reputation of the Jewish community by breaking laws, like the public health guidelines that have been put in place.
In Israel, the government has taken extreme measures for the safety of its citizens. They require returning travelers to self-quarantine; mobilize the Israeli Defense Force to clean public areas and distribute medical supplies; they have been rushing medical professionals to make a vaccine; and they even put the country under tighter lockdown over the holiday of Passover. (Coincidentally, the last item replicated the conditions of the very first Passover, when the Israelites had to stay indoors while the 10th Plague ravaged Egypt.) Also, Israel’s chief Ashkenazi rabbi advised Jews not to kiss mezuzot (inscribed scrolls hung on doorposts for Divine protection) to help stem the spread of the virus. These restrictions also posed a great theological challenge to a small part of Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox population who did not believe in following the health guidelines. Not only did their insistence on continuing educational gatherings make them vulnerable to the virus, but the spread discredited their conviction that the study of Torah is the best medicine. However, it also must be noted that much of the Ultra-Orthodox population does not possess TVs, radios, smartphones, or computers, and, at first, was most likely not fully aware of the severity of the pandemic.
Barrack Jewish Studies teacher Rabbi Michael Yondorf illuminated often less-noticed changes that rabbis are permitting due to the quarantine conditions. Poskim (Jewish legal authorities), such as Rabbi Hershel Schachter of Yeshiva University, answer halachic questions (questions pertaining to Jewish law) in light of current circumstances. In some of his letters, Rabbi Schachter details how to perform certain ritual processes with fewer people present, advises Jews to minimize social contact for public health reasons, permits people to drop stringent minhagim (customs) during the crisis, and urges everyone to act in ways necessary to stay healthy. (Information in this paragraph should not be a substitute for asking specific questions of a knowledgeable halachic authority.)
Barrack is also adapting in many ways. Academic distance learning is supplemented with Jewish virtual programming -- daily prayer, pre- and post-Shabbat services, cooking classes, and other special activities -- to keep the community together both socially and religiously.
Although Jews find ways to survive spiritually in any and all difficult situations, there is great hope that life will return to normal very soon.