Agudath Israel of America has filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking for a temporary restraining order to bar the State of New York from enforcing its limits on house of worship attendance in certain areas of the state. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the new restrictions in part due to the large spikes in Covid-19 in certain communities, specifically, the Ultra-Orthodox in Brooklyn who have flouted calls for social distancing during the Jewish holiday period.
These activities have led to recent violent protests, confrontations with the police and even assaults on members of their own community who were reporting on the protests. (Read more on that here.)
The organization maintains that Governor Cuomo’s Order’s restrictions unconstitutionally discriminate against religious practice while simultaneously permitting comparable secular conduct. Moreover, they say, the restrictions violate Free Exercise rights because they appear to target conduct due to their religious motivation.
OK, so that may be technically legally true, but why do they not at the same time call on their people to voluntarily follow all of the recommended guidelines to limit the spread of the Corona Virus.
While most of the Orthodox Jewish leadership has acknowledged the need for limitations this year due to the Corona Virus threat, some fail to see the danger. There are extreme groups whose leaders for some reason see the limitations imposed by governments as an attack on their religion. This is in spite of the fact that in places such as New York the shutdown has affected all manner of businesses as well from places of entertainment to small businesses.
And some extreme Hasidic leaders seem to think that the practice of Jewish rituals and commandments will protect people from infections. One such leader is Rabbi Moshe Shaul Klein of the Or HaChaim neighborhood in Bnei Brak. The Jewish Press reported that Rabbi Klein said, “I don’t say what you should do in practice, I only explain what the view of the Halacha (Jewish Law) is: It is not a problem to convene according to the Halakha for the purpose of a mitzvah because the mitzvah protects.”
“The outlook of the medical people is not that of the Torah. Those who are not Torah scholars do not understand that Torah and mitzvoth (Jewish commandments) are the source of life for the people of Israel,” added Rabbi Klein. “Regarding the authorities, we should heed the advice of the doctors, but regarding mitzvoth the outlook is different.”
The Jewish Press has described is Rabbi Moshe Shaul Klein as a Posek – A Rabbi authorized to make major decisions in Jewish Law – whose opinions and rulings are accepted by all Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) communities. But he sounds more like a Christian Scientist than an Orthodox Rabbi. Jewish Law clearly states that on the fast day Yom Kipur, the Day of Atonement, if a doctor orders someone not to fast, then we make the person eat and drink according to the medical determinations. We force the person to eat and do not let him insist on fasting against a doctor’s orders.
So if this is the case even on Yom Kipur, why then is it so hard to accept that going about business as usual is going to endanger the lives of your fellow Jews. To put this in the terms of Halacha, fasting on Yom Kipur is a direct commandment from God. Celebrations on Sukkot and this weekend’s holiday known as Simchat Tora are only customs. We will leave it to the reader to draw the a priori conclusion here.
Let’s put forward this simple hypothetical example. If the local authorities came by just before the holiday and said that the synagogue, or whatever venue was reserved for the celebrations, must be closed due to a fire hazard, or fear that is in danger of collapsing, and prohibit admission to it, would these same people not accept such a ruling. Then if they had to hold the celebrations outside in a park instead, but a hurricane came by or a fire were to break out right by the park, surely they would send everybody home for their safety.
If not now during the Corona Virus pandemic, then when? If we will not make sacrifices this holiday season to protect ourselves from Covid-19, then who will do so for us?
And the danger is much greater this weekend as Jews around the world will observe the holiday Simchat Tora in which the Tora itself is celebrated. The holiday tradition is for large groups to come together to sing and dance with Tora scrolls. This, of course, is problematic to say the least in the Corona Virus era.
But most Orthodox Jewish acknowledge the danger in observing the holiday as usual, with no cancelations or limitations of the traditional celebrations. The New York Board of Rabbis has come out and condemned the recent violence committed by members of the Hasidic community during protests against the Covid-19 restrictions.
It released a statement saying, “We cannot defend individuals in our Jewish community who demonstrate a blatant disregard for the COVID-19 health protocols and endanger their lives and those of other people. COVID-19 is a non-discriminating disease that must be fought by all people following the rules without exception.”
“We believe in collective responsibility where we are accountable for our behavior and reject collective guilt where everyone is depicted without distinction. Therefore, it is the duty of citizens within those virus hotspots to take responsibility for their behaviors which are no doubt causing the drastic surge in cases. Their job is not to respond with defensive rhetoric, but rather do everything in their power to bring down the spread of COVID-19.”
Strong, but necessary, words.
Everyone have a safe, happy and meaningful end of the Sukkot holiday, Shmini Azeret and Simchat Tora. Next year in a Corona Virus free Jerusalem.