The situation in which the Orthodox community currently finds itself presents a real dilemma. On the one hand, there is little question that many in the religious community relish flouting the COVID regulations. On the other hand, our governor and mayor, aided by the media, have relished singling out the Orthodox community – more so than any other community, especially those in other minority neighborhoods right here in Queens, which have much higher positivity rates than in Kew Gardens Hills and other prominent Orthodox communities.
I am sure many readers are baffled by the reaction of many in the “Ultra-Orthodox” community, plus many in the Jewish immigrant community, who simply refuse to protect themselves or others from this awful virus. Wearing a mask or distancing for some unknown reason is considered taboo. My simple (complex is not necessarily smarter) explanation is that these individuals feel that regulations are not made for us. We march to the beat of our own drum. Period. Or as one of the anti-mask protestors in Brooklyn was quoted in the papers, “In Brooklyn, we follow our own laws.” I guess that about sizes it up.
Governor Cuomo was not amused. He responded last Friday by declaring many Orthodox communities as Red, Orange, or Yellow zones. He is closing all non-essential businesses in the red zones, and limited synagogues, as well as churches, to a maximum of ten people per building. Even the judge who presided over the Agudah’s unsuccessful challenge to Cuomo’s decree could not grasp how the governor came up with the crippling number of ten per building, regardless of building capacity. Nonetheless, she ruled against the Agudah, as no judge likes to take on government.
It should be noted, as well, that the governor prevaricated from the truth. He claimed that he had a productive conversation with Orthodox rabbis the morning he made his decision. I spoke to a number of rabbis who were on that call. Firstly, it was not a conversation. It was a monologue and they listened as he spoke. Worse yet, he actually told them he will limit the synagogue capacity to 50 percent plus social distancing and masking. It sounded fair at the time. Within two hours, he publicly announced that most synagogues will be limited to ten and others to a total of 25. We no longer have an open press, so he went unchallenged for his deception. After all, the governor was given a free pass with a lot more costly COVID-related decisions he made at the early stages of the virus.
If you haven’t already seen it, I urge you to get a hold of the editorial in the October 10-11 Wall Street Journal titled, “A Jewish Revolt Against Lockdowns.” The editorial brilliantly captures the problematic attitude in the “Haredi” community, while it points to the blatant hypocrisy of Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio who had no problem with the BLM protestors, or other highly positive communities, yet came down harshly on the Orthodox. “Is it any wonder some residents suspect new rules are based more on politics than science?” the editorial queried.
But the unfairness of our treatment does not get us off the hook. As one Orthodox observer of the political scene put it, the insane behavior of some of us and the insanity of the governor’s response to that behavior are not mutually exclusive. I was walking along Main Street, returning from our shul’s very limited Simchas Torah celebration on Saturday night, accompanied by a member of our shul and his grandsons. We couldn’t help but notice that a particular shul was holding its celebration in a covered outdoor sukkah filled to capacity with no distancing and very little masking. A passing young man belonging to that shul overheard our critical remarks and turned to us in suppressed anger and said, quoting a saying of Chazal (Brachos 33b): “Everything is in the hands of G-d except for the fear of G-d.” His message was clear: Don’t worry about how careful we are in protecting against COVID; it’s all up to Hashem who gets it and who does not.
So, I decided to do a little research and see if the Sages agree with this young man. To begin with, the Gemara (Bava Kama 60b) states, “If there is a plague in your town, gather your feet together.” Most understand this to mean, escape to a different town. The Maharsha in his commentary feels that it means to stay indoors. The Gemara certainly did not say to run about and leave it up to G-d. The Rema (Yoreh Dei’ah 115) cites this Gemara as the halachah.
To this point is a comment from Rabbeinu Bachya (14th century Spain) in Parshas Korach (BaMidbar 16:21) who questions why it was necessary for Hashem to demand of Moshe and Aharon that they separate themselves from the assembly of the rebellious Korach and his followers, as they were about to be smitten by a plague. Can’t Hashem distinguish between those who are destined to die of the plague and those who are not?
Rabbeinu Bachya answers that, during a plague the very air becomes toxic and runs its own course, as it did during the destruction of S’dom. Additionally, during a time of mass suffering, the Angel of Death indeed does not distinguish between the good and the evil.
Finally, in the Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat (chapter 427, at the very end) which happens to be the last halachah in Choshen Mishpat (which usually deals with monetary issues), it states that there are many things a Jew may not do as it poses a danger to himself. That includes drinking water straight from a brook, which may have tapeworms, or putting coins into one’s mouth. “Anyone who says I am willing to risk it and jeopardize my life, and it’s no one else’s business, is subject to corporal punishment,” concludes the Shulchan Aruch. We all belong to Hashem and we all belong to the broader Jewish community. We have responsibilities to both.
There is one other factor. It’s called chilul Hashem, the disgrace of G-d’s holy name. The Gemara (Yoma 86a) states that chilul Hashem is the one sin that is not forgiven by repentance, suffering, or even Yom Kippur. Death alone atones for chilul Hashem. The same source in the Gemara continues to define chilul Hashem with instances of respected scholars conducting themselves in any way that is subject to criticism that might be tolerated of others. The Gemara goes on to state that the purpose of an observant Jew is to bring a love of Hashem via his People. That is called kiddush Hashem. But if the public cries out in dismay seeing misbehavior: “This is what studying Torah brings about? Woe is he who studied Torah!”
So those of you who refuse the directives of mainstream medicine, of government, of the common citizenry and of most rabbanim, ask yourselves: Are you bringing about kiddush Hashem or chilul Hashem? Honest, now!
Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, Vice President of the Coalition for Jewish Values, former President of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, and the Rabbinic Consultant for the Queens Jewish Link.