(JTA) — I grew up in the Williamsburg and Borough Park neighborhoods of Brooklyn. At my Orthodox Jewish day school, I studied the Torah and Jewish law. Our rabbis, many of whom had been trained in the great Talmudic academies of eastern Europe, always focused on the primary role of choosing life. In Hebrew this is called “Pikuach Nefesh.”
The biblical commandment is derived from Deuteronomy 3:19-20: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life so that you and your children may live…”
The Torah and the Talmud are filled with rules placing the value of life over nearly every Jewish value, including prayer and communal gatherings such as weddings and funerals. I understand how important these gatherings are to the vibrancy of religious life in these wonderful neighborhoods, but preventing the spread of a highly contagious virus with uncertain long term health implications should be more important.
It is shocking to me, therefore, to see so many of my fellow Jews in my old neighborhoods choosing illness and death over life — not only their own but their family members and neighbors — by not taking adequate precautions against the spread of the coronavirus, and by rejecting the advice of public health doctors.
The rate of illness in Williamsburg and Borough Park is significantly higher than in the city and state of New York in general. This is not God’s fault. Respectfully, it is the responsibility of those Jewish leaders who have not done as much as they could do to advise their followers and congregants to choose life over communal gatherings.
I understand and am sympathetic to the argument that Orthodox Jewish communities are being discriminated against by rules that allow restaurants, protests and other secular public gatherings to go forward, while severely restricting the number of people who can attend synagogues, Jewish weddings and funerals, and other communal religious events. There has been far too much finger pointing at Orthodox Jews by civic leaders who should know better. I’m on your side of these legal and political arguments.
But the appropriate response is to tighten the rules regarding dangerous secular events, not to loosen them regarding large Jewish gatherings that can become dangerous super spreader events if precautions are not taken. A single standard that does not discriminate against Orthodox Jewish events and that is based on objective factors is required, but that single standard must prioritize the health of the community.
During times of crisis — and tragically Jews have a long history of dealing with crises ranging from pogroms, to plagues, to the Holocaust, to attacks on Israel – Jewish law and customs have always adapted to the overriding the need to choose life.
Why is COVID-19 different? Why are so many Jewish leaders refusing to recognize the reality of contagion and of the need for masks, social distancing and limitations on the number of those attending large gatherings? Why am I getting so many emails and phone calls from Williamsburgers and Borough Parkers falsely stating that more people die of the flu than of COVID?
I was embarrassed, as a loyal son of Borough Park, by the burning of masks and spitting at journalists on the very avenue on which I attended yeshiva and shopped for Shabbos and Yom Tov food. I realize that the bad acts of a few Borough Parkers should not be attributed to an entire neighborhood, but these acts should have been widely condemned by all good people.
I know that this is not my Borough Park or that of my very religious parents and grandparents. But I am sad to say that it is not the Borough Park of Jewish halacha, which demands compliance with the valid rules of the state in which Jews are citizens, as well as proper behavior towards outsiders.
So, with the utmost respect, I urge those Jewish communal leaders who are not satisfying their responsibility to protect life, to prioritize those religious sources commanding us to “choose life” over customs – such as large weddings and funerals – that are not mandated by halacha. These life affirming sources have served us well over millennia of crises.
Please emphasize those parts of the Torah that deal with mandatory isolation of contagiously ill Jews. Please recall the Talmudic wisdom that he who saves even a single human life, it is as if he saved the entire world — and its relevant corollary that he who needlessly takes a single human life, it is as if he has destroyed the world.
Please do not politicize the worst health crisis in the last 100 years. Instead, choose life. That is the Jewish way and the right choice for all people during a worsening pandemic.