Thursday, February 27, 2020

Shabbat-O-Gram for Feb. 27; Coronavirus, Aipac


The Women of the Wall celebrated Rosh Hodesh Adar on Wednesday, and that celebration came complete with obtrusive pat-downs and the emptying of pocketbooks as guards searched for hidden Torah scrolls.  Still a scroll got in.  The group commented: "We refuse to accept the Kotel regulation against women having access to Torah. It is simply a means of manipulation by ultra-Orthodox men who have made the Kotel into their own private synagogue. For Israel to truly be a democracy, this monopoly over prayer must be shattered."
rosh hodesh adar 2020
See a video report
Israel votes next week.  
But there's an Israel-related election that all of us can vote in!
Vote in the World Zionist Congress elections!  Deadline is March 11!

Here's why Conservative synagogues are promoting Mercaz in the Zionist elections.

Some are making the argument that Conservative Jews don't care about Israel - and maybe it's true  As of last week, the total number of Mercaz votes from Connecticut is just 114. There are other parties that reflect similar values - and they are worthy; but this is also about representation and financing of pluralistic institutions in Israel.  Take a few minutes this week - and vote!

Shabbat Shalom! 

This weekend we welcome Katie Kaplan as our cantorial candidate.  Katie Kaplan needs no introduction to those who were here on the holidays.  So think of this as the Shabbat when we get to meet Cantor Katie.  The schedule is found in a separate email, and I encourage people to attend as many of the events as possible.  Friday night is also Shabbat Across America and the service will feature our 3rd and 4th graders.  We also hope to be streaming services (there was a snafu last week, unfortunately) for those who are out of town.

Also of note this coming week, we will once again be hosting the annual dinner of the Stamford Chevra Kadisha on Tuesday, Adar 7 (Moses' yahrzeit). Click here to read more about the dinner and the important work the Chevra does for all of us.  And next week is also Adar 9, also known as the Jewish Day of Constructive Conflict.  Click here to learn how to disagree agreeably.

The Coronavirus

Just as we were getting used to living in a world where synagogues are being violently attacked, now we have reason to fear a less visible but equally dangerous enemy. A potential pandemic nothing to pooh-pooh (say that five times fast).  We need to get out front of this just as we have gotten out front of the synagogue security issue.  Let me address this in a few different ways:

1) Is this something to be taken seriously?  

The answer is, absolutely.  There is no reason yet to panic, but every reason to be vigilant. The death toll from the coronavirus has already passed the SARS epidemic from 2003.  If you get Netflix, two recent programs explain what's happening.  One is a twenty minute primer called "Explained: The Next Pandemic," which predicted that the wet markets in China would be a sort of "disease factory," explaining how the virus could become mutated and shared with humans.  And the other is a series highlighted in the trailer below.

Trailer for Netflix Docuseries
Trailer for Netflix Docuseries "Pandemic"

2) What does this have to do with Judaism?


Leviticus 18:5 states, "You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the Lord." From this injunction to "live by them," the rabbis derived the principle of Pikuach Nefesh, which states that almost any Jewish law can be circumvented if it will save a life. Examples given in the Talmud include Sabbath violations, such as rescuing a child from the sea, breaking down a door about to close on an infant and extinguishing a fire to save a life. In the Mishna, we read (B Yoma 83a) that someone seized with a "life threatening" hunger can break the fast on Yom Kippur. In 1848, during a cholera epidemic, Rabbi Israel Salanter ordered his community to disregard the fast in order to preserve their health. Famously, he ate in front them. So, from the start, Judaism has always been so flexible as to have a built-in GPS that allows for instant recalculation of religious obligations during times of extreme disruption.

Judaism teaches us that preserving innocent life is our foremost religious obligation.  Which is why at a time of the real fear of a potential pandemic, we need to adapt.

- So beginning this Shabbat, we will have dispensers of Purell available on the bima, so that people can disinfect after an aliyah, when handling the Torah, shaking hands, etc.  We never want our bima to become a No-Hug-Zone, but we should encourage people to hug responsibly.  (Those who read my book Mensch-Marks might recall Mensch-Mark #5, "Saturday Morning Fever," which was all about the issue of physical contact and prayer.)

- It's hard to change a culture, but we might want to consider replacing handshaking with fist bumping.  I will try to do that more often, beginning this week.  There could be awkward moments, so if I slip up and slug you in the mouth, be assured it was accidental!

If all this seems ridiculously overdone, it's not.  This is another case where we really have to trust science - and the scientists are very concerned.  BTW, if you want to see the Johns Hopkins interactive map that shows the worldwide progress of the disease in real time (it's been the subject of much buzz on Twitter this week), here it is:

It is my prayer that one month from now, that map will not look radically redder.  But we need to understand that most likely, it will.

So as a rabbi, it is my religious obligation to promote life-saving practices and to take this seriously.  If you don't believe me, see the World Health Organization's website, "Preparing for Pandemics."  And use this chart below as a reference and a reminder to wash hands at all times.  For, as we read in Psalm 24:

ג  מִי-יַעֲלֶה בְהַר-יְהוָה;    וּמִי-יָקוּם, בִּמְקוֹם קָדְשׁוֹ.3 Who shall ascend into the mountain of the LORD? and who shall stand in His holy place?
ד  נְקִי כַפַּיִם,    וּבַר-לֵבָב:
אֲשֶׁר לֹא-נָשָׂא לַשָּׁוְא נַפְשִׁי;    וְלֹא נִשְׁבַּע לְמִרְמָה.
4 He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not taken My name in vain, and hath not sworn deceitfully.

The following article was published on the Times of Israel site as a featured commentary.  See it and share it -

Of the Coronavirus, the Red Sea, and Fear

It's OK to place your personal and family safety above your calling to do good in the world, but some really do put it all on the line, and I'm in awe
In what is arguably his funniest movie, "Love and Death," Woody Allen plays a Russian caught up in the Napoleonic invasion of his country. Amidst the philosophical banter that produces much of the film's humor, Allen's very Jewish outlook shines through in what some would label his pragmatism, but others would call cowardice:

"And so I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Actually, make that "I run through the valley of the shadow of death" -- in order to get OUT of the valley of the shadow of death more quickly, you see."

Contrast that with the image of courage depicted in the legend regarding the crossing of the Red Sea.  It's a remarkable Midrash, because it goes against all the stereotypes about the "daring" Moses and recalcitrant Israelites that we've been fed. In this tale, the tribes are vying for the honor of being the first to plunge into the still-raging sea, while Moses is standing off to the side immersed in panicked prayer, acting more like a Woody Allen than a Charlton Heston. Here Moses is the sniveler, until God finally chides him saying, "My beloved are on the verge of drowning in the sea and you're babbling on with lengthy prayers." Nachson the son of Amminadav springs forward into the sea and gets very, very wet, while Moses, in a state of near paralysis, begs God to tell him what to do. Finally, God responds (and here I paraphrase), "Dummy! Stop praying, tell the people to move forward, and pick up your rod." He does, the sea splits, and the rest is history.

Woody Allen's ambivalence about risk-taking has been mocked as a relic of our centuries-old, Diaspora-conditioned negative self-image, something that was supposedly rendered obsolete by the creation of Israel. The modern Sabra has indeed fostered a new image of Jewish heroism, but Judaism remains as it always was, somewhere between Woody Allen and Ari Ben Canaan, traversing the Valley when necessary, but traversing it briskly. Ours is not a kamikaze religion. Even Moses had his moments of paralysis.

So back when we faced the last potential pandemic, a Jewish medical practitioner came to me and asked what our tradition would tell him about a doctor treating a patient with SARS. This virus was truly scary because so much about it was unknown, but what was known is that SARS was deadly and extremely contagious. Unlike AIDS, it could be transmitted without intimate contact; unlike West Nile, it couldn't be traced to infected parasites, and unlike Ebola, it was not confined to some remote jungle. It was right here, threatening to turn your local mall into that Valley of the Shadow of Death. 
That's how we are thinking of the Coronavirus today.

Eventually the panic will subside as the medical community gets a handle on the virus, but that question will remain supremely relevant, especially as doctors in China have died of infection and fatigue while treating patients with the disease.  

Maimonides and others long ago codified the obligation of a physician to heal, but when a patient has a contagious disease, the obligation to save one's own life can take precedence. If the risk is very small (sofek sakanah) the doctor is obligated to heal, and if it is great, s/he is not. Interestingly, according to Dr. Fred Rosner, an expert on these matters, when a doctor treats a patient despite high risks, the act is considered a "pious one" (midat hasidut) by some Halachic authorities and folly (chasid shoteh) by others. The Babylonian Talmud opines that one is not obligated to endanger one's life even if the risk is small, in order to save the life of another. In contrast, the Jerusalem Talmud states that one should take that risk. It's interesting that the Talmud written in the Diaspora conveys the more cautious, Woody Allen-like approach, while the Jerusalem Talmud speaks in the macho tongue of an Israeli cab driver. The dialectic between the two Talmuds reflects a dialogue that has been ongoing in Jewish circles through the centuries.

In "Love and Death," Allen is challenged to a duel. He replies, "I can't do anything to the death, doctor's orders. I have an ulcer and dying is one of the worst things for it."

It's OK for Jews to be afraid. It's OK to place personal safety - and, by extension, obligations to one's family - above a higher cause, such as a physician's oath or national objective. In biblical times, an Israelite who was afraid to fight in a (non-obligatory) war was sent home without censure. "Just go," the officer would say. "Enjoy your new wife, new home or freshly planted vineyard! It's OK!"

We have nothing to fear of fear itself.

Which is why I am in such awe of those who have placed it all on the line these past few weeks and who will undoubtedly respond to the call in the days to come. A Jew isn't doing these things out of a religious obligation, but out of pure love of humanity, and the hope of freeing others from the fears that enslave them. Like Nachshon at the Red Sea, they - and all others who are at the forefront of this medical crisis - have taken the plunge for all of us.
Recommended Reading

- AIPAC Policy Conference 

The conference is this weekend and early next week.  I won't be attending this year (too much to do here pre-Cuba), though I thoroughly enjoyed attending last year.  This year for the first time, you can attend remotely by registering online, which enables you to watch most of the key sessions. Click here to watch.  Here are three articles relevant to  Senator Sanders' comments about AIPAC.

Sanders may have felt righteous in throwing a bone to the far left on Israel, but in doing so turned his back on liberal Zionists who support his progressive agenda and still work within the pro-Israel establishment. Worse, perhaps, is that he once again signaled that he is less interested in forging a wide and formidable coalition than in stoking his base.

Sanders also told J Street that Americans "have a right" to demand that the "Israeli government sit down and negotiate with the Palestinians an agreement that works for both parties," something most AIPAC attendees - certainly the vast majority of American Jews - probably also wish would happen....Writing off AIPAC - a bipartisan, mainstream group that is at the heart of many American Jews' political identity - as a bunch of bigots is not going to help restore respectful discourse in our public spheres.
Now, in the lead up to the 2020 presidential elections, AIPAC has wandered way off track, choosing to use Facebook to run harshly partisan ads attacking "radicals" in the Democratic Party for "pushing anti-Semitic and anti-Israel policies down the throats of the American people." Whoa, how did AIPAC get so far off the bipartisan rails? Supporters like me are wondering: Has AIPAC conceded its core bipartisan mission?... What AIPAC did in the midst of the Democratic primary brought unneeded attention to minor differences on the U.S.- Israel relationship held by a very few influential Democrats, while playing directly in favor of those seeking to sew discord within the party. AIPAC seems to have forgotten its experience of just a generation ago: GOP majorities can turn into Democrat majorities overnight, which is why it held so tightly to bipartisanship over the decades

My own take...

AIPAC's key role as one of the few "public squares," where supporters of Israel from all sides of the political spectrum can meet, is in grave jeopardy.  The fault is not entirely AIPAC's own.  When Prime Minister Netanyahu snubbed President Obama and went straight to Congress from AIPAC in 2015, He pulled the rug out from under many of Israel's greatest defenders, including Mossad chiefs, and reportedly, AIPAC leadership.  Everyone foresaw the train wreck that was slowly developing.  But it didn't matter.  When Bibi chose to make Israel a partisan issue in America, AIPAC had no choice but to go along. But that is no excuse for what's happening now.  Senator Sanders' comments about AIPAC are unfair.  This is, after all, the organization that called out candidate Trump in 2016, for insulting President Obama in a manner that would seem tame today.  AIPAC has bent over backwards to remain bi-partisan, except for it's over-sensitivity to progressive Democrats that attack it.  Sanders presented AIPAC with the perfect opportunity to be the adult in the room.  But the tone of their response to his accusations was exactly the opposite of what was needed.  AIPAC needs to reach out to the left as never before and not simply condemn the progressives' standard bearer.  If AIPAC really wants unity and the biggest possible big tent, they'll extend an olive branch rather than firing back.
This is week in anti-Semitism: 

Participants of the Aalst Carnival wearing costumes combining 
ultra-Orthodox Jewish attire with ant limbs 
at the event in Aalst, Belgium 
on February 23, 2020. (Cnaan Liphshiz)

Shabbat Shalom and despite it all...


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