The most basic expectation of practicing Jews is that they gather with other Jews. The minimum attendance requirement to hold Shabbat services every week is 10 people — a minyan — and as the Brooklyn Rabbi Matt Green put it to me, the word “synagogue literally means a gathering place, it’s the Greek meaning. And beit knesset, the term in Hebrew, it means the same thing.”
Green’s synagogue, Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, is among thousands of congregations around the country now weighing the same problem: What’s a gathering place supposed to do when people shouldn’t be gathering at all?
The coronavirus outbreak, classified on Wednesday as an official pandemic by the World Health Organization, has prompted synagogues and other worship communities to react in creative ways. The Orthodox Union, an umbrella organization of traditional Jewish congregations around the country, advised celebrants of the recently concluded Jewish holiday Purim to “ideally take part in a private Megillah reading.” Temple B’nai Abraham, the synagogue at which I grew up in Livingston, New Jersey, has said that it will be restricting Shabbat services to bar and bat mitzvah families, though they will be livestreamed.
“We’re really trying to do social distancing,” Bruce Greene, the B’nai Abraham congregation president (and a practicing psychiatrist) told me. Greene said that prior to shutting down services altogether, they instructed congregants to just take home the complimentary kippot and to leave borrowed tallit on their pews.
"Erev Shabbat Services will available by livestream only," Greene and the temple staff said in an email to the congregation. "Please note for those seeking to say kaddish, a virtual minyan counts when one cannot be present."
When I stopped by the Beth Elohim buildings in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn on Thursday morning, I saw a single-file line of children being led back toward their classroom. Although Green told me that schools hadn’t been closed yet (though by the end of the day, the synagogue would announce a cessation of most in-person activities until March 28), he said that Beth Elohim’s staff and directors had been talking on an hourly basis about what they should do next.
Pikuach nefesh is a totalizing rule, declaring that all other obligations of Jewish law — not driving a car on Shabbat, for example — are subordinate to saving the life of another.
I told Green that I felt that there was something heavily biblical about coronavirus. The image of millions of people coming down with a speedy and volatile illness is innately wrapped up with plagues and famine and Job, the sort of brutal morality that we refer to when we describe things as being “very Old Testament” or having “biblical proportions.”
He replied by noting something that “keeps coming up in our messaging around coronavirus,” which is the idea of pikuach nefesh, which is the principle in Jewish law that stresses the importance of saving a life. It’s a totalizing rule, declaring that all other obligations of Jewish law — not driving a car on Shabbat, for example — are subordinate to saving the life of another.
“Even if the vast majority of us are healthy right now, and even if most of us will weather this storm and be okay — even if we get the virus — there’s still this special responsibility to look out for the health and well-being of other people,” Green said. “Flattening the curve is an annoying and abstract way of phrasing it, but it’s exactly what this commandment of pikuach nefesh means.”
Finding creative workarounds of Jewish law for the realities of everyday life is hardly a novel development in Jewish life. Many Orthodox Jews, for example, will only live in a community surrounded by an eruv, a length of wire that allows its people within its enclosures to perform tasks that would otherwise be forbidden, such as pushing a stroller on Shabbat. The Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, a supervisory body of Orthodox Jewish schools and congregations in northern New Jersey, said in a Thursday morning press release that “people should not have gatherings for Shabbat meals. Shiva visits should be replaced by phone/video calls… There should be no house minyanim. All of the rabbis will be davening alone in their homes. Please daven at home, individually.” When the circumstances demand it, Jewish tradition and practice can adapt accordingly.
This also extends to the question of how to care for those most vulnerable to coronavirus. As Green describes it, this means identifying how to supply medicine, food, and other essential help to the elderly congregants who are usually the ones gathered in the pews on Friday nights and Saturday mornings.
“Strategizing for how to best take care of people when it’s necessary, it’s been the whole point of what a synagogue is,” Green said, before adding, ruefully, “that’s very saccharine of me to say, but I think it’s true.”