My response to the Supreme Court ruling scrapping attendance limits in houses of worship during the pandemic, excerpted from my Yom Kippur sermons:
For those of us who work in religious institutions – there is no question that we deliver essential services. But our building does not need to be open for that to be the case. We are proving that at this very moment. And those religious institutions with integrity have understood that our most essential purpose is in saving and enhancing lives. We were alerted to some unique dangers we confront early on when a church choir rehearsal in Skagit County, WA. led to the infection of 53 members.
There was something about a lot of people praying together that was getting them sick.
But despite this, there are some clergy who have led their congregations astray and into the pit of disease and death, by flaunting protocols and reopening prematurely, sometimes even breaking the law, and encouraging their congregants to shun masks and spacing when it is common knowledge that crowded church services can be super spreading events.
Like that Tampa, Florida pastor who was arrested in April for defying the authorities by holding services for hundreds of parishioners. Or the pastor in San Antonio, who later apologized for encouraging hugging at his church, resulting in at least 50 cases of the coronavirus. Or the Louisiana pastor who was arrested for defying stay at home orders after holding live services for hundreds of people. Or the church in Seoul, South Korea, that flaunted regulations and was later found to be linked to more than 5,200 cases. It’s a Jewish problem too. Like that super spreader hasidic funeral in Brooklyn that drew 2,500 people – and then there was Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky in the Haredi community of Beitar Illit in Israel who said that yeshiva students should stop being screened because “it could lead to a mass loss of Torah study.” Meanwhile, an increase of some 114 percent in Beitar were testing positive.
Or the pastor in Maine who, after officiating at a super spreader wedding, knowingly spread it to his congregation, defiantly mocking state and CDC guidelines, stating that God wants him to expose his people to disease. He said, “I want the people of God to enjoy liberty.”
Give me liberty, or give me breath!
Well, the God I pray to prefers parishioners who aren’t dead.
“We don't orchestrate this, MacArthur said. “This is a church. We don't ask people to make a reservation to come to church,” he said.
Well, maybe they should. We do.
“We opened the doors,” he added, “because that's what we are, we're a church and we’re going to trust those people to make adult decisions about the reality of their physical and spiritual health and how that balance works for each one of them," he said. "Nobody's forcing anything, they're here because they want to be here."
They apparently believe that God wants them to be sneezing all over each other.
They clearly did not read that verse from the Talmud:
If there is plague in the city, gather your feet – and stay home!
Leviticus 18, which is the Torah portion for Yom Kippur afternoon, teaches:
וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת-חֻקֹּתַי וְאֶת-מִשְׁפָּטַי, אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם הָאָדָם וָחַי בָּהֶם: אֲנִי, יְהוָה
Ye shall therefore keep My statutes, and My ordinances, which if a person do, they shall live by them: I am the LORD
We are told, regarding the mitzvot of the Torah, “V’chai bahem,” Life takes precedence over just about everything else in Jewish law, including Shabbat observance.
The Talmud teaches that Shabbat is holy only because we are alive to observe it. It isn’t holy in a vacuum. It needs living people. If a Shabbat falls in a forest and no one is there to observe it, it is irrelevant. If the coronavirus kills all of us, when Friday evening arrives, there will be no Shabbat. We “make Shabbos.”
So life takes precedence even over Shabbat observance. You are required to profane one Shabbat if that will enable you to live for many Shabbats to come.
Donniel Hartman reflected on this lesson and concluded that at this moment – what’s the most important thing we can do? To live. Connecting t/o that core instinct is not trivial anymore. All the rest doesn’t matter. All the rest is commentary.
“You shall live by them.” “V’chai Bahem” The priority of life is a powerful moral statement.
Hartman is saying that the Torah does not think it’s acceptable for people to take actions that put lives at risk. It is not heroic to go to a bar. It doesn’t make you a warrior to take off your mask and to shrug it off and say, “People are going to die.” That can never be acceptable. Because simply saying “people will die,” even though we know that they will, never makes it acceptable. We should never try to normalize 200,000 deaths.
“It is what it is” is never what it should be.
We are profoundly interconnected. Did you know that 70 percent of the coronavirus that spread in the first wave in Israel came from America? In Israel, they could have called it “the Brooklyn Virus.” I understand more than ever before that I can be a source of harm for people.
We are all responsible to keep others alive.