Some concepts in Judaism are so ingrained you would think that they would no longer need to be reiterated.
One of Judaism’s most basic principles is that pikuach nefesh, saving lives, takes precedence over almost every other mitzvah. More than 800 years ago, Maimonides (Hilchos Shabbos 2:3) polemicized against the sectarian Jews of his time who refused to break the laws of Shabbos when necessary to save a life: “It is forbidden to hesitate before transgressing the Sabbath on behalf of a person who is dangerously ill, as the verse (Leviticus 18:5) states, ‘[You shall keep My laws and My rules,] by which man shall live’ — shall live and not die. This teaches us that the laws of the Torah were given not as vengeance against the world, but rather as mercy, kindness, and peace for the world. Concerning those heretics who say that [saving lives] constitutes a violation of the Sabbath and is forbidden, one may apply the verse (Ezekiel 20:25): ‘[As punishment,] I gave them harmful laws and rules by which they cannot live.’”
While pandemics may be new to us, they are not new to Jewish history. Throughout our history, the rabbis of each generation have insisted upon doing all that they could to save lives, following the instructions of the medical experts of their times. Confronting the cholera epidemic of his time, R. Akiva Eiger (1761 — 1837), perhaps the greatest rabbi of his generation, enacted strict limits on the number of people who were allowed to pray together and even solicited police enforcement of these limits. Yet, doing the same thing today, New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo faces protests and lawsuits by those who claim to revere R. Akiva Eiger’s legacy.
During a subsequent cholera outbreak, R. Yisrael Salanter (1809 — 1883), the great ethicist, made sure that food was available for anyone who felt weak on Yom Kippur, going to great lengths to ensure that human life took precedence over the fast. R. Akiva Eiger gave instructions for how Yom Kippur services should be abridged during the epidemic he faced.
Living up to the values of these giants requires learning from their example and applying it to our current reality, not denying reality and pretending that we face no demands of pikuach nefesh. Some leading rabbis today, such as R. Hershel Schachter, R. Asher Weiss, and R. Mayer Twersky, have succeeded in living up to this standard. Likewise, some rabbinical councils, such as the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, have succeeded in establishing strict safety protocols for their synagogues, which as a result thankfully have not seen large surges in coronavirus cases.
It is well-known that R. Chaim Soloveitchik (1853 — 1918), perhaps the greatest rabbi of his time, was extremely meticulous about pikuach nefesh. When his son R. Moshe first became the rabbi of a community, R. Chaim instructed him to care for the widows, the orphans, and the unwed mothers, and to rule that those suffering from life-threatening conditions on Yom Kippur should eat ordinarily, and not limit themselves to small amounts (as discussed by his son, R. Y. Z. Soloveitchik, in his work on the Rambam). R. Chaim’s grandson, R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, recounted an episode that took place one Shabbos, when he was ill as an infant. R. Chaim asked the doctor if it would help to have more light, to which the doctor gave a noncommittal response. R. Chaim immediately instructed his eldest son, R. Moshe, to turn on the light. When R. Moshe hesitated, R. Chaim called him an “am ha’aretz” (ignoramus), and R. Simcha Zelig, the dayan of Brisk, immediately turned on the light. When R. Chaim was accused of being lenient about Yom Kippur, he responded that he wasn’t lenient about Yom Kippur but stringent about pikuach nefesh (or, according to another version, stringent about shefichus damim — murder).
What we are witnessing in parts of the Orthodox Jewish world today is the greatest desecration of God’s name — chillul Hashem — I have witnessed in my lifetime. Asked by friends outside our community to explain the actions of some within it, I have been at a complete loss. For some reason that I cannot fathom, parts of the Orthodox community today act as if the principle of pikuach nefesh no longer applies and disregard the government regulations enacted to protect their own lives and those of their neighbors. This segment of the population appears to have decided that a virus that has already killed more than one million people throughout the world, and over 200,000 in the United States, should not be regarded as a danger and should not require them to change their way of life.
This is a perversion of Judaism, which demands that human life be given priority over almost everything else. Halachah does not rely on miracles to determine what is safe, but on what human reason tells us is safe. Likewise, safety must be determined by science and the advice of medical experts, not based on far-flung conspiracy theories. Every student of the Talmud knows that “chamira sakanta me’issura” — we must be more careful about the possibility of endangering ourselves than about the possibility of violating any other prohibitions. In this case, those who disregard safety measures are endangering not only themselves but others as well — in other words, they are not only endangering their own lives, but also are guilty of indirect murder.
In short, the imposition that social distancing and mask wearing makes on our routine religious practice is not the threat to the halachic way of life. Such safety restrictions are required by halacha and should be in place regardless of the government. Instead, the true threat to halacha comes from those who perversely cry about the government’s restrictions on their religious practice and yet ignore the foundational concern for human life at halacha’s very core.
Menachem Genack of Englewood is the rabbi of that city’s Congregation Shomrei Emunah.