When our shuls re-open, whom are they re-opening for?
As I ponder the question of the re-opening of our shuls, I wonder whether we are re-opening because this is something God has asked us to do, or something we are doing for ourselves. Is it a mitzva to re-open a shul? Or a voluntary act many Jews are now choosing to sign up for, without God having asked.
Normally in Orthodoxy we undertake religious acts because it is what God wishes us to do, requires us to do – but my heart tells me that probably there is no absolute religious obligation to return to synagogue at this point. The Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America said almost as much recently: “Our Poskim have stated that even a young and healthy individual who is personally concerned about shul attendance due to COVID-19 is exempt from attending Minyan and is free from the obligation of reciting Kaddish.”
After all, all mitzvot are suspended when needed to save lives – “that they live by them” the Torah teaches us (Sanhedrin 74a), and even the holy Shabbat is pushed aside by the requirement to save lives. Indeed, even if there is the slightest chance that a life is at risk – God tells us that saving lives takes priority over other obligations (Rambam, Hilkhot Shabbat 2:1). One does normally forbidden work on Shabbat, and eats on Yom Kippur if even one doctor or the sick individual believes his life is in danger (Yoma 83a). Surely this would be the case regarding communal prayer, an ideal, though possibly not absolutely required way, to perform a Rabbinic command.
Does that mean we are required to keep our shuls shuttered and closed? We know that Judaism also carries a prohibition of self-endangerment (Devarim 22:8; Rotzeah u-Shemirat ha-Nefesh 10:5). Rama also prohibits engaging in risky behavior (Y.D. 116:5) as a matter of law, and says that even case of doubtful possible risk should be treated more stringently than prohibited commandments. It is for this reason that our congregations closed their doors, in an effort to combat the COVID-19 pandemic in March! Perhaps we should not re-open at all until such a time that a workable vaccine has been found and COVID-19 has been fully conquered.
Clearly, we need to distinguish between three different levels or types of risk, in order to address our next steps and synagogue re-opening:
Under Significant Risk – It would be prohibited to re-open; mitzva obligations are suspended until risk subsides.
Under No Risk – Mitzva obligations are in full force, and we must follow regular religious demands and shuls must re-open.
But today we face: Moderate or Small Risk – Small enough that we leave our homes, but large enough that we still feel its weight on our shoulders.
It goes without saying, of course, that this essay only addresses circumstances when our doctors and religious leaders confirm that there is no significant risk, to ourselves or to others in returning to communal prayer. We must do everything in our power to decrease risk as much as we can while praying – through smaller minyanim, social distancing, use of masks or other protective gear, and ensuring those with symptoms not attend synagogue. We must also ensure that individuals with a higher risk profile not attend synagogue, such as those above a certain age or with pre-existing conditions. Shuls will need to be extra careful and extra cautious to make sure all health recommendations are met, avoiding errors and mistakes that plagued some of our communities’ initial response to the first news of COVID.
But let us assume, as doctors have told us, that current risk levels – at least in some parts of the world – are small (especially when mitigated through masks, social distancing, etc.). Let us assume that an individual’s personal risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19 is low, that they live in a location where hospitals are not over-taxed, and that the outcomes of those attending minyan upon, God forbid, contracting COVID will also likely be positive. For such an individual the risk statistics are less than 1%, likely less than .1% and possible less than .01%.
Still, does God demand that we attend communal prayer under such circumstances? If we can travel on Shabbat or eat on Yom Kippur, two capital Biblical crimes, even out of concern for low levels of risk, does God demand that we pray publicly when risk levels are that low? How many times have we gone to the E.R. on Shabbat in an attempt to avoid an infection or to achieve an early diagnosis, to avoid similarly low risk rates?
The answer may lie in the difference between situations in which pursuit of mitzva observance confronts risk, and situations in which our human needs in living our lives confront risk. We all know there is some (though at times infinitesimally small) risk any time we drive in our cars on busy streets or icy roads or go out during a regular flu season, any time we overeat or gain weight, but those actions are generally permitted as this extremely low level of risk is not defined as “prohibited, reckless, risky behavior.” Some low level of risks that most people in society were not concerned by are expressly permitted by the Talmud under the guise of the axiom “God protects the simple” (Yevamot 12b, Avoda Zara 30b, famously applied in Igrot Moshe H.M. 2:76 to any case where “the risk does is not felt by a majority of people”). Risky behavior is prohibited, but living with a low level of risk is essentially a fact of life. If American society at large returns to gyms, beaches, schools, or malls – then the American population has essentially declared a willingness to live with this moderate or small risk.
Indeed, there are numerous conditions where the authorities expressly permit even moderately risky behavior because small levels of risk are often overcome by important, human counter-pressures: earning a living (Devarim 24:14-15 with Rashi, as applied by Noda Bi-Yehuda, Y.D. 2:10), pregnancy (Meshekh Hokhma, Bereishit 9:7 from Tosafot Ketubot 83b), alleviating a greater potential health risk (Avoda Zara 27b), moving to Israel (Rashbash, siman 1). Though we refrain from any mitzva if doing so causes risk of life, living life does involve undertaking some risk, and consequently people may choose in some circumstances to undertake small levels of risk as part of being human beings.
Thus, returning to synagogue does not reflect a total absence of risk. It means that risk levels have reached the point where counter-pressures can be taken under consideration to permit the behavior on account of the valid gains which outweigh the risks. Anyone who feels more comfortable to err on the side of absolute zero risk may choose to do so, and Our Creator does not demand we take on risk for His Sake. But God permits us low risk, when the alternatives would be living lives missing something crucial and essential.
When we return to synagogue it will not be because God has asked us to, but because we have asked Him to. For many, communal prayer provides spiritual connection, more inspired prayer, and emotional relief. For the observant, it serves as a critical self-definitional component of the daily routine, establishing that our communities and social interactions are defined through shared faith and common goals. It is also a vital educational lodestar for teens and young adults in our communities, teaching them the critical value of religion when compared to other aspects of life, and is a critical therapeutic element for mourners of loved ones or those struggling with the anxieties of the pandemic. Though to be sure this is not our primary reason to return to shul, communal prayer also provides the human connection of being in the same room as friends, as community. Many feel empty, going months without communal prayer, as if there is something so important missing from their lives. A decision to return to shul is informed by all of these important values, and their ability to counterbalance risk, as much as it is informed by the obligation of communal prayer.
Our Torah often teaches that our religious obligations to God are less demanding than our obligations to ourselves. R. Akiva teaches “Make your Shabbat as a weekday, so as not to demand begging for charity from others” (Pesahim 112a): suspend your religious obligations for lavish Shabbat meals, if that degrades one’s dignity and brings one to charity. Shabbat candles take precedence over other mitzvot because it produces peace in the home (Shabbat 23b): suspend your religious obligations until ensuring the home has peace. Judaism has a recognition that we have human needs as well, which sometimes bear a greater force than some religious obligations.
A return to shul, which has begun in Israel and may happen sometime this summer in the United States, will clearly feel somewhat missing or empty. We will return without kiddushim or socializing in the synagogue social hall. And the elderly and the immunocompromised, often the most determined and dedicated members of our communities, will likely not be able to return until herd immunity is reached or a vaccine developed. (Indeed, some shuls might wait to re-open until such time that everyone can return, in an effort to avoid the ennui and inuy to those that cannot come back.) Even when shuls re-open, it will be a partial return, poignant and tinged with sadness, but a return nevertheless.
God has not asked us yet to return to synagogue. But we have asked Him to do so. And if we return for the right reasons – for spiritually grounded reasons, and in the right ways – with safe practices and with health security, we must hope that we will find God waiting for us there in synagogue when we have returned.
Yaakov Jaffe is the Rabbi of the Maimonides Kehillah and Dean of the Maimonides School.
[Published May 24, 2020]