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Our Bodies, Our Shuls

Any congregation that takes any measure that bars any Jew from praying in communion on the Days of Awe is divesting itself from the very core of Jewish life

by
Liel Leibovitz
August 30, 2021
Photocollage Tablet magazine; original Wikimedia/Tel Aviv Museum of Art
Who shall mask? Who shall not? ‘Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur’ (1878), Maurycy Gottlieb, 1856-1879Photocollage Tablet magazine; original Wikimedia/Tel Aviv Museum of Art
Photocollage Tablet magazine; original Wikimedia/Tel Aviv Museum of Art
Who shall mask? Who shall not? ‘Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur’ (1878), Maurycy Gottlieb, 1856-1879Photocollage Tablet magazine; original Wikimedia/Tel Aviv Museum of Art

Dear Rabbis,

As you prepare for yet another High Holiday season pocked by uncertainty, I know that many of you are wrestling with the difficult question of how to hold services safely given the resilience of COVID-19. I am thankful to be spared the burden of these decisions, and am deeply grateful for the dedication, devotion, and care that I know many of you bring to this unforeseen, unforgiving moment.

But none of that, sadly, spares any of us from the stark reality that the measures you set in place now will define you and your congregations, determining, to borrow a turn of phrase from the liturgy we’re about to read, which communities shall live and which shall wither away.

Many of you are requiring proof of vaccination, and many more have decided to ask families with children younger than 12 to stay home this year for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. You may be doing so following your local authorities, like New York City, who now demand that vaccination cards be presented before entry to restaurants, gyms, and other venues, and who are venturing to keep unvaccinated individuals, including children, from congregating indoors. Or you may be listening to staff, board members, and congregants who urge you to adopt none but the strictest measures, because you can never be cautious enough and because these are extraordinary times and because we must, as the new declaration of faith goes, trust the science.


We can and should debate the efficacy or necessity of these measures in our civic and professional spaces. But we should also realize that our shuls are—and must be—different. Those who act like the algorithm of human life has but one variable—the prognostications of medical professionals—are dismissing the intricate web of yearnings, emotions, and traditions that have always defined and sustained our faith. Jews celebrated Shabbat in silence under the Inquisition, lighting candles in darkened basements even though the flickers of holy light could attract the penalty of death. Jews baked matzo in the ghettos and observed Yom Kippur in the camps. We are here not in spite of these indiscretions but because of them, here because we realize that our faith guards us, even—or particularly—when observing it comes with a measure of sacrifice and risk. Any congregation that takes any measure that bars any Jew from praying in communion on the Days of Awe is divesting itself from the very core of Jewish life.

Wisely and mindfully striving to reduce risk is elementary; attempting to avoid it altogether—to create spaces cleansed of everything complicated, including certain human beings—is idolatry.

And yet, here we are, scrambling to scrub our sanctuaries of any speck of peril and at the same time bleaching away any shred of holiness. A community that asks its future generation to stay away is telling it that it is nonessential, unneeded, uncounted. Some of these 8- and 9- and 10-year-olds may return next Rosh Hashanah, but without that string in their heart that resonates only when strummed again and again each year. And a community of Jews asking other Jews to show their papers, obliterating the element of trust and mutual responsibility that is at the very heart of community, is a community actively breaking with Jewish history. I mean this quite literally: Never before had we required proof of vaccination against, say, measles or mumps, diseases that once felled thousands of Americans, because previous generations were alive to the unspeakable obscenity of replacing the bonds of communal cohesion with the edicts of state-run bureaucracy, a turn that hadn’t ever served Jews well.


So please, rabbis, rabbaniot, communal leaders—if you are toying with the above, please reconsider. Open the doors wide. Trust your congregants’ judgment. Require masks if you’d like, get creative with outdoor minyans for families with small children, but do not suffocate the spirit of the season by forgetting that Jewish communities were always a dialogue between high and low, between experts and ordinary folks, between law and desire. Ours isn’t a top-down religion. We aren’t impressed by meritocracies, as that famous Talmudic story about the rabbis rejecting the judgment of God Himself will attest. We’re still here because we understand life isn’t just about this set of metrics or that, even when the numbers measure dire things like infection rates or new cases; our tradition has always seen more layers of truth and beauty beyond the grim reality, and it is precisely this ability that is the engine of our survival. If you doubt this, revisit the great Hebrew prophets, difficult men who often went against the common sense and perceived wisdom of their time to remind us that we Jews are bound not only by the observable laws of this world but by the covenantal ties that urge us to look up and forward to the next.

I know some of you, too, understand this, and I know many of you must still contend with others who, scared and confused, conflate responsibility with paralysis. This, friends, is why we need you so desperately now. Lead us, with moral clarity; take unpopular stands that may single you out for scrutiny now but that will, in one or three or 10 years, crystalize into the moment that helped your community cohere and flourish. Remind us what we’re about. Comfort us with the eternal Jewish story: We worship God, and He, in turn, protects us; we stand together in our tradition, and it sustains us. Return some measure of awe to these pale, terrible days. That is what we have always needed rabbis for. And we need it now—much more than we have in a long time. Our moment is a historical inflection point. Where you lead your Jews, starting right now, will determine the future—theirs, and all of ours.

Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.

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