NEW ROCHELLE (JTA) — Jewish holidays, typically times of joy and gathering, have this year become times of increased danger and foreboding.
Particularly among the observant and Orthodox communities, Purim was — and now Passover will be — occasions when following tradition as usual can be deadly. The spirit of togetherness is part of the DNA of Passover. And yet, in these times of the novel coronavirus, that very spirit has become an essential risk to our life.
That does not mean that change will be easy. Tradition is powerful, and unfortunately, many people are willing to endanger themselves and others in order to celebrate the Passover Seder with one another, come what may. That is why it is vital to spend the 11th hour before the holiday begins convincing those in power to insist that their followers stay home this year — so that next year, we can come together once again.
The idea of being alone, of being socially distant, is inimical to the very essence of Passover. From its very inception, Passover has been a time when Jews are supposed to come together. Unlike all other sacrifices that could only be brought and consumed at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the Pascal lamb had to be offered and eaten with other Jews in the home, together.
In times when the Temple stood, people took their lambs home and roasted them on a spit of pomegranate-wood, set it on the table at the evening banquet, and ate it in a set order. While eating it, everyone was obliged to remain together and talk about the miracles of the plagues and their collective exodus from slavery to freedom. That was the Seder, and we repeat the story and the customs still today.
But this year, sharing a meal around a table exposes us precisely to the risks that we must avoid. For the fervently haredi Orthodox, if not for all observant Jews, this is an unthinkable challenge to their Jewish belief system. Some might even say that to follow such distancing protocols, one has to have a greater faith in the truth of science than in the truth of tradition.
Not everyone can be counted on to meet this test of faith in favor of social distancing. So in Israel, authorities have placed the entire country in lockdown to try and prevent a further explosion in infections, especially given the prevalence of COVID-19 in haredi neighborhoods and cities.
Here in America, the state authorities have been more reticent to use the strongest tools against those who break the social distancing rules. Police have been careful not to take actions that could appear to target a particular religious group or community, lest this be considered prejudicial and insensitive.
But such policies are in the best interests of all of us, including and especially the Orthodox community itself, which has been suffering the consequences of its failure to distance in tragic ways.
We must do everything in our power to ensure that Jewish leaders, in every segment of the observant community, impress on their followers the life and death choice that stands before us. As much as we want to gather together, in line with Jewish custom and Passover tradition, practicing the norms of pikuach nefesh (protecting life) by socially distancing is surely what the Almighty, Jewish tradition, the Torah and religious principles demand. They must impress upon their followers that to do otherwise would be not only wrong but a fatal error.
The Orthodox Union, the Agudath Israel of America, Igud HaRabbanim-Rabbinical Alliance of America, The Lakewood Vaad, National Council of Young Israel and Rabbinical Council of America have already issued such guidance. We must do everything we can to make sure others follow suit.
Believing in the science that teaches us how to survive this plague is not a heresy, but in fact in line with the highest Jewish principle: one should live by the Torah and not die by it. This message must go out today, for we want to make certain the coronavirus angel of death passes over our houses and not into them.
is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College and holds the Proshansky Chair of Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center of CUNY. He is author of The Rebbe: The Life and the Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
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