At its best, the Jewish community does amazing things in the spirit of pikuach nefesh, to save a life. At services, if someone faints, there’s silent networking. Within seconds, multiple medical professionals surge forward silently to attend those medical emergencies. I heard that one crack team included a gynecologist, a neurologist and a dermatologist – and a nurse who managed better than all the specialists together. In these situations, the Jewish priority is clear. It’s taking care of health and well-being first.
I was recently studying a page of Talmud, Shabbat 129a. It examines healthcare issues through a Jewish lens of 1,500-plus years ago. The rabbinic commentaries throughout the ages update medical practice as time passes.
There’s a section discussing when a woman in childbirth needs Shabbat to be desecrated. When a baby is born, it’s a potentially life-threatening situation. Therefore, halachah (Jewish law) is lenient. The people near a woman giving birth must do what she needs, even if it breaks the Sabbath. Depending on which rabbi you consult, this leniency can last awhile: from three to 30 days.
On the same page, the rabbis discuss bloodletting. We recognize today that this ancient medical treatment is almost never advisable. Bloodletting was seen then, though, as being both medically necessary and very dangerous. There’s acknowledgement in the Talmud that this is a difficult experience. Different scholars recommend how to recover best with food, wine, rest or being in the sun. It sounds awful. Over time, different commentators reflected their views on limiting this scary treatment. Maimonides advised against it in Mishneh Torah, aside from “when there is an extraordinary need for it.”
I thought about this as I read an online forum about High Holidays this year. It won’t be surprising to hear that, in many congregations, there will be services streamed online; brief, outdoor services; or some kind of limited, small group get-together. In the COVID-19 era, we know that social distancing, wearing masks and avoiding large gatherings are all important ways to avoid getting sick.
Jewish tradition emphasizes our need to gather as a community. For many, this is why we attend services. However, as I heard on this forum, congregations sought input from their communities, and some of the questions struck me as absurd.
What would you miss about High Holiday services? The list was long: hearing speeches from the synagogue board, receiving aliyot, seeing friends, saying Yizkor with the community, hearing the rabbi’s sermon, breaking fast together, doing Tashlich, and more. There were awkward questions: If only a small, socially distanced group (of 10, 25, 50, etc.) can gather, will you be upset if you aren’t included?
The questions, asked in various ways, were, “What will make this holiday meaningful for you? How can the congregation provide that?”
Everyone thinks something different is meaningful. If only one thing were meaningful, we could all do it and be done with services in 10 minutes. (Or whatever ritual event we’re considering.) For me? I would say “meaningful” is when your congregation doesn’t become a contagious hotspot for coronavirus.
For those who feel slighted about not being in synagogue, consider if only a small congregation is allowed. Think about what is more meaningful: experiencing the High Holidays differently, streaming services at home and knowing your congregation hasn’t endangered a single person’s health, or being there in person and risking everyone’s health by spreading the virus through the congregation?
To me, the most important thing we – as individuals and as a congregation – could do is to help everyone have a healthy, happy, meaningful year. If that means avoiding groups, we should pay for our customary tickets or synagogue dues and stay home.
If streaming doesn’t work because of your observance level or because you’re “Zoomed out,” you have options. Perhaps bake some honey cake, call up friends and family to catch up before the holiday, ask forgiveness, and wish them happy New Year. Then, pray alone or with your immediate family. Find some relevant books to read, take a hike in nature, etc. There are other ways to observe these holidays.
As a new mother, I explored this issue previously, when I had my twins and had no child care. Babies need what they need. They don’t care what day it is. I streamed some very good services and sermons while juggling twins through infancy, toddlerhood and preschool.
We’ve already observed a long series of holidays – many Shabbats, Passover and Shavuot – at home by now. Pre-pandemic, I found meaning in different ways: a summer Shabbat service, Shavuot ice cream, Simchat Torah dancing or sitting in my backyard sukkah.
Sometimes, just sitting still is the point. My twins are 9 now. They will “attend” services with us in our living room this year, just as we do on most Shabbats these days.
Watching my kids sing along at home as they set up Lego minyanim in preparation also has meaning. They debate where all their animals and robots should sit in their made-up congregation, directly in front of the iPad streaming services.
No one scenario has the market cornered on “meaning.” However, that Talmud page, Shabbat 129a, offers a window through which we can study how medical care changes and evolves. We no longer think bloodletting is a necessary procedure, but rather just a dangerous one. The underlying message about childbirth and health care is that the rabbis teach us to be lenient about any life-threatening situation.
We’ll learn more about this coronavirus as time passes. Meanwhile, while we need to acknowledge our feelings, we can’t let our personal upset be what’s important – that’s just selfish. I, too, miss being in the physical congregation space, but not enough to endanger a single immune-compromised or elderly person who might attend. Choosing a lenient position about how to fulfil our religious obligations in this dangerous time is key.
For some, it’s early to be dwelling on the fall holidays, but it’s not too soon to buy your “virtual services” ticket. Invest in your community’s future financial health and make a plan for how to make your observance special. Knowing we’ve prioritized pikuach nefesh first? That’s priceless.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.