By now, there are very few shuls remaining open in the northeastern part of the country. Certainly the ones remaining open are doing so in secret. In fact, I can’t imagine that there are many synagogues across the country, and even around the world, that are still open. However, we know that there are. And this issue isn’t exclusive to the Jewish community. Every day, there are stories of not only synagogues, but churches and mosques being found open despite the mass requirement of social distancing. This has resulted in the new formation of “snitch culture,” where members of a community call the authorities to put an end to gatherings within their own communities. Religious leaders are being arrested and prosecuted for holding services – for choosing to disobey orders to remain closed.
However, it is a comment made by the worst mayor New York City has ever seen in modern times, which made me think about what lies in store for the future of these religious institutions that disobey the current rules. In a press briefing, Bill de Blasio stated that “a small number of religious communities, specific churches, specific synagogues, are unfortunately not paying attention to this guidance [to close] even though it’s been so widespread. So, I want to say to all those who are preparing the potential of religious services this weekend: If you go to your synagogue, if you go to your church, and attempt to hold services after having been told so often not to, our enforcement agents will have no choice but to shut down those services… If that does not happen, [the police] will take additional action up to the point of fines and potentially closing the building permanently.”
The first thing to notice here is the blatant omission of mosques in his statement, because G-d forbid de Blasio would say anything potentially damaging towards the Muslim community; but let’s take a look at the end of his statement, where he threatens permanent closure of any religious institution that defies orders. Now, there are two ways to look at this statement. Either de Blasio is being 100 percent direct, that if you do not comply with current instructions, you are risking being permanently shut down. Alternatively, this could just be a scare tactic from de Blasio, and that while he threatens to shut you down, the most he would do is issue a large fine. Now for the purposes of this discussion, I will take the mayor at his word, and assume permanent closure is a possibility. There is going to be a lot of debate as to whether or not the mayor should or should not go through with that threat. But the question here isn’t “should he do that,” rather “can he do that”? Now I am not an expert in the legal side of this, so I’m not asking if the mayor has the legal authority to shut down a shul. So, more accurately, should the government have the ability to shut down a private institution for non-compliance?
On the other hand, we have seen a different approach within our community. In a video that now has over 5,000 views on Facebook (and who even knows how many on WhatsApp?), Brooklyn physician Dr. Stuart Ditchek talked about his experience confronting the Sasregen Shul in Brooklyn two weeks ago while it was holding a minyan. I’m not going to summarize the traumatic story, but I will highlight Dr. Ditchek’s statement that once this crisis is over, a beis din should convene, and that shul should be closed. Presumably, this opinion would hold true for any shul at least in New York City. He also calls on any donors to stop giving money to the Sasregen Shul. This is obviously a different tactic being taken than de Blasio. While the mayor is looking to seize power by using the might of his office and the police department to force a shutdown at gunpoint (and make no mistake, that’s exactly what this would be), Dr. Ditchek is looking to handle the situation in-house.
Now, my goal here isn’t to determine whether or not shuls that remain open should be permanently shut down. I know that I won’t be davening with a minyan possibly for another month. I also know that the vast majority of people in the Jewish community won’t be either. However, if you were determined to punish religious institutions with eternal closures, I am just here to analyze these two approaches. And from every conceivable angle, there is no question that Dr. Ditchek’s method is better. This approach will be swifter, more effective, and lawful, without yielding more power to an already too-big government.
Let’s start with the swiftness. We all know how long it could take to force a closure at the governmental level. Court orders, law suits, appeals – by the time it’s all over it could be 2025. If a beis din were to rule, it would be much quicker, and while it wouldn’t deter everyone from going back to the shul, enough would be dissuaded that it would really hurt. This would likely include some major donors who wouldn’t be too interested in potential cheirem for donating to a shul that a beis din has already ruled against.
This leads right into the effectiveness of beis din over the courts. Should a court rule that the shul be closed, aside from the fact that the appeals and bureaucracy would give everyone time to cool on the whole thing, it would give the congregants the motive to just, you know, defy the ruling just like the first time, and open up again. It may be in a different building, maybe under a different name, but the essence of the shul would be the same. A beis din wouldn’t allow for that. Remember, this should be a deterrent should a situation like COVID arise again, and a complete closure of the shul sets a nice precedent for future batei din.
Finally, the legal aspect. Again, this is not for the current law, rather what it will mean for us moving forward. If we allow de Blasio to close religious institutions for violating a public safety rule, we won’t be too far from rules expanding to include other potential “public safety” rules. What if a future mayor decides that acceptance of gay marriage is a public safety concern, and religious institutions must accept that or be shut down? What if transgenderism is likewise determined and a shul that doesn’t accept a transman as a part of a minyan can be shut down? Shuls, churches, and mosques could be forced into making public statements on political issues or be forced to close. We can’t allow this to happen. This must be allowed to be handled in-house.
Historically, it has been bad news for the Jews when the government takes more control over religion. We can’t afford to allow that now, and it is my opinion that those shuls that remain open are not only putting the immediate safety of people into question, but they are putting the future of our freedom to practice our religion freely in this country in grave danger. If you remember your history, one of the things the Nazis seized upon before World War II was to blame the Jews for the collapse of the economy. Keeping your shuls open now would allow anti-Semites a lane to blame the Jews once again for the collapse of the economy as well as the deaths of tens of thousands (or more). That’s not to say that it’s a fair or correct claim, but it gives them a space. Don’t do that. Don’t give anti-Semites an excuse to make hay, and don’t give the government an excuse to take away our freedom of religion.
Izzo Zwiren is the host of The Jewish Living Podcast, where he and his guests delve into any and all areas of Orthodox Judaism.