Monday, December 14, 2020

Halachah & COVID-19--how precedent, denial, and stubbornness can endanger us


The rabbis of old took a midrash that seems to have no basis in the text of Megillat Esther (the Book of Esther) itself--the notion that Mordechai and Esther were not only first cousins, but were also husband and wife--and derived from that interesting tale a ruling that a married woman who's forced to have sex with another man against her will is not held accountable for adultery.  While I applaud this decision, obviously, I must admit that I can't quite understand why the rabbis needed to base it on a midrash.  Can't a halachic decision be made just because it's the right thing to do?  Must p'sak (a halachic ruling) always be based on a text, a tradition, and/or a precedent?


In the early years of the development of electricity, the rabbis made a ruling that one could not turn an electrical device on or off on Shabbat (Sabbath) because electricity was a form of fire and/or a form of building (construction), and both starting a fire and building are forbidden on Shabbat.  Good luck getting either explanation past our son, who has a PhD in physics--he has always adamantly insisted that the rabbis were just plain wrong because, according to science, electricity is neither a form of fire nor a form of building.  Yet I have noticed a tendency among the more traditional--it seems difficult to admit that a posek (a halachic decisor) is just plain wrong.  

Speaking of electricity, the rule seems to be that a minyan must consist of ten people who are all in the same room, which means that a service conducted by Zoom (or a similar online "meeting") is not a minyan. 

Yes, I can certainly think of other reasons for the rules about electricity.  Using just about any communication device or "screen," be it a phone, a television, a computer, or a gaming device, on Shabbat interferes with the face-to-face communication that is a hallmark of Shabbat observance.  That's why we, ourselves, avoided using the phone or any "screens" on Shabbat until the pandemic.  And I can also understand the concern that allowing people to attend minyan via Zoom might discourage people from showing up in person. 

But denying the place of electrical devices in contemporary life places "a stumbling block before the blind (Parashat Kedoshim/Genesis 19:14)."    First of all, it makes praying with a minyan difficult or impossible for many elderly people and many people with disabilities.  Second--and especially during an air-borne pandemic--it defies what I understand to be a rabbinic tradition that one does not make rulings that the people will not follow.


Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, a rabbi told a story (online, I believe) about their attempt to continue holding daily minyanim in person by moving the minyanim from the small chapel/bet midrash to the much-larger sanctuary, to give room for social distancing.  Much to their dismay, they found that people for whom coming to synagogue was not necessarily safe--older and/or health-compromised congregants--came to the relocated minyanim because they thought it was safe.  In the interest of preserving lives, the rabbi quickly cancelled all in-person minyanim and took their congregation's services online.  

We all know that it's safer to davven bi-y'chidut (pray alone) than to pray in a group during an air-borne pandemic, yet we also know that many folks insist on attending in-person services anyway, to the possible detriment of their health and the health of anyone living with them, as well as others with whom they come in contact.  Stubbornness is in our DNA--we're Am K'shei Oref, a stiff-necked people.  But stubbornness is in the DNA of our rabbis, as well.  The stubborn rabbinate of observant Jews hasn't give them any choice--either they risk their health or they pray alone, since observant rabbis won't permit Zoom minyanim.  This results in what appears to me to be the blatantly obvious problem that observant people who feel that they have an obligation to say kaddish for a deceased parent must show up in person, whether they think it's safe or not.  To put it bluntly, the stubbornness of observant rabbis is putting peoples' lives at risk just because they won't admit that they might be wrong about electricity.


Here's a quote from the Orthodox Union--"Pikuach Nefesh: Concern for life is a paramount value in Halacha. We are compelled to violate most halachic prohibitions when confronting a possible risk to life, or a possible opportunity to save a life."

I can't see any justification for putting a prohibition against using electrical devices for making a minyan above saving lives.  If this isn't a good time for an "emergency ruling" (hora'at sha'ah?), I don't know what is.

And if a rabbi insists on following a precedent, they have one--it's called Chanukah.  The halachic leaders of the era of the original Chanukah ruled that one is permitted to violate Shabbat to defend oneself if one's life is threatened.  The only difference between the enemy of that era and the enemy of this one is that the threat to life comes not from an army, but from a virus.

To observant rabbis:  The lives of many observant--and, granted, sometimes stubborn, but also elderly and/or disabled--Jews are in your hands.  Either you allow a group of 10 praying on Zoom (and similar online "meetings") to be counted as a valid minyan, or you continue to put people's lives at risk.  The choice, and the responsibility, are yours.

The floor is open.


Blogger Kid Charlemagne said...

basically all of Torah can be suspended for pikuach nefesh except in 3 circumstances

Mon Dec 14, 02:53:00 PM 2020  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

once again, you reveal your ignorance. Electricity isn't "building". Completing a circuit is.

And many shuls suspended daily minyanim and, in fact, prohibited backyard minyanim at first. Once the first wave passed, shuls reopened in conjunction with local laws (for the most part, I'm ignoring the scofflaws). Our shul is open for inside davening with social distancing and masks. The rabbis have made it clear that there is no obligation to daven with a minyan at these times, but those who want to have the opportunity. There are also outdoor options. Perhaps if you actually knew what went on in communities other than your own you wouldn't speak from ignorance.

Mon Dec 14, 03:25:00 PM 2020  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

I will check with my son, but I'm pretty sure that he disputes precisely that point-- as a scientist, he does not agree with the opinion that "completing a circuit" is a form of building.

My point is that it's safer not to pray in groups, and I don't think that many, if not most, people would feel a need to do so if they could make a minyan online.

This affects not only old folks like me and my husband, but also those who have old folks living with them, plus anyone who either has a pre-existing condition or lives with someone who has a pre-existing condition. Why put people at risk when there's a way to accomplish nearly the same thing online?

Mon Dec 14, 03:37:00 PM 2020  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Scientists don't decide what falls under categories of melacha. When you complete a circuit, there is a physical action. When you flip a switch, something happens. That action is considered boneh. Your son's opinion is not only wrong, it is irrelevant.

And Zoom simply isn't a minyan. Old people should stay home. There sometimes are no options. Can't say kaddish? ok. it happens. it may be heartbreaking, but it's excused.

You want to change halacha for your convenience. Doesn't work that way. People can choose to stay home. I've only davened in an outdoor minyan since the pandemic started and when it gets too cold for that, I'll stay home. Orthodox rabbis have been leaders and extremely responsible during this time. So sorry it doesn't meet your non-Orthodox standards.

Mon Dec 14, 04:08:00 PM 2020  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

People don't always "choose" to stay home--sometimes their mobility scooters just aren't welcome. I'm sorry that old age and disabilities are just "inconveniences" in your eyes. :(

I truly regret that we can't see eye-to-eye on this matter. I just think it's sad that so many people are barred from participating in a minyan because it's reserved for the young, healthy, and "able-bodied."

Mon Dec 14, 08:33:00 PM 2020  

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