There are tactics, and there is strategy. In any campaign, both matter.
As local Jewish communities fight the coronavirus, their rabbis and lay leaders rely on the advice of their own institutional leadership, as well as on guidance from doctors and scientists. As the pandemic began, those voices offered the tactical mandates that were crucial as the Jewish world navigated through the potentially deadly new shoals that marked Pesach, Shavuot, and the High Holy Days, as well as the risks posed by camps and schools and parties and Shabbat dinners and Memorial Day and the Fourth of July and Labor Day and normal social life. They were all about social distancing and mask wearing and surface cleaning and air circulation.
They mattered tremendously — they continue to matter — and they keep us safe.
But strategy undergirds tactics. Why are we doing what we are doing? What are we balancing? What are we trading off for what? For whom? For how long? To what end?
Last week, the Orthodox Union and its affiliate, the Rabbinical Council of America, released a document that details some of the underlying reasons for its actions.
Rabbi Adir Posy, who was an assistant rabbi at Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, now is the OU’s Los Angeles-based director of synagogue and community services.
“This message is more about nuance,” he said. “As the pandemic goes on, balance is the name of the game. There are many competing values at play here; the job of this guidance is to give context and some ways of thinking about how to navigate those values.
“That means that it’s different from the guidance about how to reopen, with the number of feet apart you have to be, or how to handle the lulav and etrog on Sukkot. This is about navigating values. And the winter will add an extra element, with the impact of having to be indoors. It’s about the reality of recognizing the significant concerns and risks that the pandemic is continuing to pose, and to make sure that we keep those concerns front and center.
“All of us, from the average community member to those of us in positions of communal leadership, need to make sure that we keep the core values that we hold; those values include both safety and peace. We must make sure that we act in an appropriate and civilly minded way, while recognizing rather than ignoring the challenges that we are facing.” Not all of those challenges are internal, Rabbi Posy added; some have to do with “maintaining an appropriate relationship with the broader community.”
One of the most difficult balances this time demands is between the need for health and safety and “isolation, which is and will continue to be a significant risk that parallels the risk of the virus,” he said.
Another challenge is “how this looks to the outside world,” Rabbi Posy continued. “We believe in the importance of role modeling as parents to our children, as leaders to our community, and of Jewish values to the entire world. We have to recognize that this is a responsibility.”
The document outlines the values that must be honored and balanced; they are pikuach nefesh, which it defines for these purposes as “concern for life,”; finding a place between the Scylla of concern for physical health and the Charybdis of the isolation that harms mental health; respecting the role of the government; advocating for the community’s needs while respecting civil authority’s power; protecting against anti-Semitism by being aware of the impression the community’s actions make on outsiders, and the culmination of all these values, “fiercely pursuing peace.”
Pursuing peace, the guidance continues, means “retaining and enhancing mutual respect … must be of paramount concern. Divisive language and public criticism are unlikely to effect change. Rather than pointing fingers, we must focus on what we ourselves can do better, improving ourselves before critiquing others.”
“Our guidance is proactive, not reactive,” Rabbi Posy said. The OU and RCA representatives who wrote it had to be aware of all kinds of different Orthodox communities, ranging from the small outposts in largely non-Jewish areas to the huge clusters in metropolitan areas like this one.
“One of the key points of communication at every point in this pandemic has been communal rabbinic leadership,” Rabbi Posy said. “From the beginning of the lockdown, the leadership and communication from Bergen County” — he meant the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, the local chapter of the RCA — “has spurred a lot of what we have done.
“Taking leadership not only of technical issues but of the broader ones as well — that’s very much been the style in Bergen County.”