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March 12, 2020 9:41 am

Ethics and Communal Responsibility in the Face of Corona

avatar by Yuval Cherlow


Yad Sarah volunteers in protective gear distribute medical equipment to individuals under mandatory 14-day quarantine in Israel due to possible coronavirus infection, on March 10, 2020. Photo: Yad Sarah.

In addition to the many practical challenges imposed by this ongoing crisis, the outbreak of the coronavirus raises many ethical and moral questions.

Most of the issues relate to the individual’s responsibility to abide by instructions, the authority’s responsibility to protect public order, and the intersection between these two areas.

From the outset, there is an ethical imperative upon every person who is deemed by the authorities as needing to go into isolation to fully abide by those instructions. This is both the proper course of action but also without a doubt morally and halachically demanded of us.

It is a basic human principle that we have a responsibility to care for the interests of others and certainly to prevent harm from coming to others.

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In this case, where there is a question of life and death, the issue obviously becomes all the more pressing.

There are numerous halachic principles at play here that instruct that we do everything possible and necessary to protect the sanctity of human life.

This presents an important understanding of how we relate to others around us, and our responsibility to care not only for ourselves but for the welfare of the greater community.

In this case of the corona outbreak, there is a high level of “suffering” on multiple levels beyond the medical challenges. There are clear economic hardships that are being imposed both personally and communally, as well as increased anxiety. Recognizing this fact, we must be constantly aware of our surroundings and see if there are people around us in distress.

This brings us to a more specific question of our ethical responsibility to “inform” on those who might not be abiding by the guidelines imposed by the authorities. In general, “slander” of any type is condemned and prohibited by halachic authorities.

Yet it is very clear that in these times of global tension and uncertainty, these concepts do not apply.

First off, it should be clear there is no slander here. Nothing is being misconstrued and there is no attempt to harm someone else. The interest is solely to protect the public’s welfare. This is our basic responsibility as citizens, and failure to speak out may negatively impact the health of the general public.

In fact, someone who stays silent is being ethically negligent because there are ethical and halachic imperatives “not to stay silent when others are in distress.” Of course, prior to informing the authorities, we must first try and convince the person to abide by the law. But when that fails, we have every responsibility to let the authorities know so that the issue can be addressed.

There is also an ethical and moral need to do everything possible not to impose unnecessary panic, and this requires that we do what is asked of us by the authorities.

It is our firm belief that by closely embracing these ideals and ensuring that morality and ethics guide our behavior during these challenging times, we will succeed in transforming these days of tension and uncertainty to again be ones of happiness and joy.

Rabbi Yuval Cherlow is the Director of the Ethics Department of the Tzohar Rabbinical Organization in Israel.

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