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The Four Questions of the Pandemic

After almost two years of living with COVID-19, we need to ask ourselves about what risks we are willing to take as a community

Dan Ain
January 19, 2022
Anouk Van Houts
Anouk Van Houts
Anouk Van Houts
Anouk Van Houts

Like many other pulpit rabbis, I found myself in March 2020 facing a lot of unknowns. Naturally, I wanted to preserve as much of our communal life as we could, while making sure our staff and congregants were safe.

We were one of the first congregations to cease in-person services in March 2020, we presented our community with robust online programming six days out of the week, we found new ways to celebrate baby-namings and memorial services, and we spent significant resources to freely provide High Holiday offerings that were as aesthetically compelling as they were religiously moving. And when we reopened our sanctuary in 2021, we did so cautiously and within the regulations set forth by the City of San Francisco—which include distance, masking, and air filtration requirements. And we have continued to follow them religiously.

But now, almost two years into this pandemic, the time has come to assert strongly that there are profound questions that remain unasked about the risks we take, and, more acutely, the risks we’re not willing to take.

I’m done pretending that I am the child who doesn’t know enough to ask.

If I can place my finger on the pulse of what’s been so dizzying to me—among an array of upside-downness—it is the refusal to ask questions. It is as though Jewish leaders took an oath of silence regarding pandemic measures, when Judaism itself is built on a foundation of inquiry and engagement.

Where is the discourse? The chatter of hevrutahs asking what needs to be asked in this moment, debating freely back and forth the costs and benefits of various measures?

In giving instructions for how to conduct a Passover Seder, the Mishnah outlines the requirements for the charoset, the cups of wine, and the bitter herbs—while also requiring that a child ask a parent what this ritual is all about.

Our Jewish communities seem to be under a spell where they have adopted the stance of the Child Who Does Not Know Enough to Ask. But they are not children. And while they go on pretending to be, actual children are being harmed—at this very moment—by the refusal of adults to ask questions.

In cases where a child is unable to ask questions at the Seder, the Mishnah provides “Four Questions,” good for any child in any home and any community, to get the ball rolling.

In that spirit, here are four urgent questions:

Are the behaviors we’ve accepted to mitigate COVID-19, almost two years in, compassionate?

What does our Torah teach us that can be applied to this moment? Is it to be fearful? Is it to imagine that we are mere grasshoppers, seeing our friends and neighbors only through models of risk mitigation and pixelated representation?

Or, is it to see the image of God reflect back in the uniqueness of each of our unmasked faces? A singular uniqueness that our tradition teaches is worth “the whole world entire.”

Why are we increasing our safety precautions when we are in the midst of the spread of the mildest variant yet? Why are we not embracing new information, new data, new treatments? Why are we returning to a fearful retreat that flies in the face of what we are seeing with our own eyes?

What risk-mitigation is worth indefinitely casting our children out of our Jewish spaces—not least when they are the ones least at risk of serious illness, least at risk for spreading to others, and in the midst of this mild variant?

How much longer will children be kept from their Jewish communities?

What about our children’s mental and spiritual well-being? Are we willing to sacrifice their entire Jewish childhoods? Do we not appreciate the cost to them, Jewishly, of months or years of exclusion from our midst?

Of never getting to dance the hora at their coming-of-age simchas? Or worse yet, being taught that it is dangerous to dance in shul.

What are the costs imposed by putting medical-grade masks on small children when outside—as is currently my synagogue’s recommendation? What do doctors, scientists, developmental specialists, and educators have to say about this?

As for me, I can only speak to what our tradition says about binding children, and it’s … not positive.

Did others witness, like I did, the virus play itself out in most healthy unvaccinated children much like a common cold? In light of this: What are we afraid of?

What responsibility do we have as a religious community to assist people in alleviating irrational or disproportionate anxiety and fears?

During times of war, social upheaval, community anxiety, and concern—should the synagogue not be the place to gather in solace, for a hug, a respite from work life, a place to take in a moment of sweet prayer? What is the risk of not having that?

Is there more virtue to be found in spending more time poring over graphs of aerosol transmission spread among low-risk populations—than in looking at the staggering increase in teen suicides, depression, mental health crises, and learning loss?

When is it time to say ‘enough’?

What ought our feelings be toward people who may be less well than us—maybe who even made decisions not as great as ours—but who nonetheless are in need of our support? Should we abandon them to their isolation?

We are a community of people who are encouraged to ask, to debate. We must do that now when so much is on the line—the very future of our community. And what I want to debate is not whether a synagogue can be a place of complete safety, complete sterility, but whether it should be. No new life ever flowered in a germ-free environment.

It is in that spirit of the Mishnah that I have posed the questions above.

In the meantime, I am here.

You can find me praying among the redwoods, by the ocean, and God willing in my sanctuary, where I hope to continue to welcome you—all of you—with open arms.

No questions asked.

Dan Ain is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco.

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