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March 18, 2020 6:34 am
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A Response to COVID-19

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

Opinion

An empty street is seen in Manhattan borough of New York City, following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), March 15, 2020. Photo / Jeenah Moon.

Friends, we are living under conditions that we have never experienced before. It is not a Holocaust of course. But it is akin to the Black Death and the Spanish Flu. We may not face the same number of fatalities as then, but it is scary, unpredictable, and at this moment we do not know how long it will last. We have always had plagues. In the past it might have taken a whole generation to recover. If this one does not last that long, it is cold comfort when faced with the present insecurity and the unknown.

There will be a huge loss of jobs, income, and shortages that could lead to riots in the streets and martial law. Companies and businesses will shut down, many will collapse. Schools have closed. Some parents who have a job cannot go to work because they need to say at home to look after their children. If governments are forced to print money without restraint, in order to cope with destitution and starvation, inflation will destroy pensions, savings, and fortunes. A collapse in the financial markets and a recession may take years to recover from.

Inevitably people are beginning to talk of the Apocalypse, Armageddon, the Messiah. Remember there are Jewish, Christian, and Muslim messiahs. We have no idea which one it will be. We all think it is ours. Who knows, they might form a coalition! But no Messiah came after catastrophes in the past. We would be naïve to think it will happen now. All this non-rational talk only increases insecurity and panic.

Being careful, avoiding other people, and quarantining ourselves is essential. No one can afford to ignore instructions. The Law of the Land takes priority over religious ceremonies even if some hidebound, religious authorities seem to think they can rely on miracles.

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From a religious point of view, I don’t think there ever was a time in the free world when synagogues were shut down (other than for fear of antisemitism). But that has not had a deleterious impact on my religious life. We could always pray at home. Those who lead religious lives have daily patterns of spiritual resources and activities that help maintain their faith and rhythms of life.

But in the way religion has developed in recent times for most people, it is a far bigger problem now than it once was. Throughout our history, religion was based primarily on homes and families. Nowadays the vast majority of Jews “take out their religion” only when they visit synagogues. And they do so less and less often. Those who rely on rabbis and institutions for religious life are now feeling deprived. Their only connection has been severed. Most do not have the tools to pray alone, to study alone, or to find spiritual support and reassurance. Very few know how to take advantage of the ancient means of support and reassurance by connecting directly with God. Even substitutes, like counseling, meditation, exercise, and support groups are increasingly dependent on others.

For those who live a life according to Jewish law, not that much will change. We will pray at home if we cannot get to a synagogue. We will eat together as a family and say our blessings and sing our songs. We will keep Shabbat and festivals as days when we will not rely on technology for entertainment, but rather on conversation, personal interaction, playing, and walking with our families. And we will study together and learn.

There is no doubt we need communities, and the dramatic effect that this is having on communal life is catastrophic. But as with everything there is a silver lining. New technology enables us to attend services online, even say kaddish online, to study online, to communicate, and to use Zoom or Skype or FaceTime to talk to family and friends and keep in touch.

Actually, this crisis is a wonderful opportunity to reset our religious habits. To start creating a new model of religious life based more on the home than the synagogue, for those who have not yet done so. To fix times to pray or meditate for a few moments, three times a day as individuals. To pray together as a family. Not the whole service necessarily — perhaps just the Shema and the Amidah. To study in any language a page of the Torah every day or go through the weekly portion. And to spend more of Shabbat eating together, talking, and discussing. Not just on Friday night. This disaster can make us stronger as individuals and as a people. All trials test us to see if we grow or shrink.

There is another abstract dimension to a disaster. When things go wrong we always tend to ask, “Why is God doing this to us?” Usually, it is about something personal. As if God were punishing us for something whether it affects us or those we love.

All our lives we have to deal with loss, sickness, invalidity, accidents, and tragedies — as well, of course, as all the joys. That is the world we live in. Diseases are everywhere, all the time. The Bible says after Noah’s flood (Genesis 8.22) “the cycle of sowing and harvesting, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.” The world functions according to the system and rhythm its creation made it — regardless of the behavior of human beings.

Earthquakes and tornadoes happen not because someone does something wrong, but because those events, like cold and heat, rain and drought, are natural phenomena of our world that God created. We humans are remarkable organisms with billions of microbes, bacteria, viruses, and parts that go wrong sometimes, but also protect and cure.

Prayer like repeated mantras will do what any meditation will do, distract you, relax you, calm you, and make you feel less alone and abandoned. But will not get God to change how the world or our bodies work. But these things do help. They give us courage, a sense that we are doing something proactive, a response to helplessness.

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen received his rabbinic ordination from Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He has worked in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and academia for more than 40 years in Europe and the US. He currently lives in the US, where he writes, teaches, lectures, and serves as rabbi of a small community in New York.

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