Could coronavirus generate increased dynamism in Jewish law post-outbreak?
There is no doubt that these unique times have generated some unique rulings because of the exceptional time we are living through.
By JEREMY SHARON
The unprecedented public health crisis spawned by the coronavirus pandemic has had a profound impact on innumerable aspects of daily life, spanning the gamut of human activity across the globe.This phenomenon of change has been deeply felt within Jewish religious life as well, with communal prayer, festive gatherings, and other aspects of Jewish tradition all severely curtailed due to the spread of the COVID-19 virus.But these difficulties have been accompanied by a parallel phenomenon within the Orthodox world in which some rabbis have issued rulings in Jewish law which have relied on unusual and even extreme leniencies. They are designed to make Jewish life and compliance with Jewish law easier in such trying times.One of the most well-known of these rulings was that of a group of Orthodox Sephardic rabbis, including Rabbi Eliyahu Abergil, who served as the head of the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court.Their ruling allowed the use of a video-conferencing program for the Passover Seder – if started before the holiday begins – in order to connect with isolated family members. The use of electronics is usually prohibited for Shabbat and holidays.Another extraordinary ruling was made by Rabbi Haim Amsalem this week in which he ruled that women could immerse in a bathtub instead of a mikveh (ritual bath), because of the potential danger of coronavirus infection in such facilities.A less prominent ruling is that some rabbis are allowing people to forgo immersing cooking utensils in a mikvah. Usually this is required before use if the utensils are made by non-Jews. Instead, the items are declared ownerless or sold symbolically to a non-Jew and the user is said to “borrow” them until such time that immersion in a mikveh can be performed.AdvertisementRespected arbiter of Jewish law Rabbi Eliezer Melamed in another ruling stated that the kaddish mourner's prayer could be said in a“virtual prayer service” conducted over video-conferencing software. Generally, a quorum of ten men who are in physical proximity to each other is required to recite kaddish.Some of these rulings have generated vociferous opposition, with rabbis arguing that the leniencies being relied upon go too far or are misapplied. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that these times have generated some out-of-the-ordinary rulings in line with the exceptional time through which we are living.ONE QUESTION that has come to the fore in light of these rulings is what impact they will have on Orthodox Judaism once the pandemic crisis has receded.Might the flexibility found to combat difficulties during this period lead to a greater rabbinic inclination to find solutions to acute religious problems facing the Jewish people, and to difficulties arising in other unusual circumstances?Could hitherto unpopular leniencies for Jewish conversion gain more traction, may innovative solutions for agunot (chained women) be utilized, and might electronic communication be used more widely for religious purposes?Rabbi Ari Kahn, a senior lecturer at Bar Ilan University and rabbi of the Mishkan Etrog community of Givat Ze’ev, notes that there have been precedents in Jewish history for radical rulings in extreme times.He cites a ruling made by sages during the Talmudic era when a change to Roman taxation laws meant financial ruination for Jews who observed the laws of shmitah (the sabbatical year) when land must lie fallow. The Talmudic sages permitted working the land during that seventh year despite the strong stipulation within Jewish law to the contrary.But Kahn asserted that rulings of Jewish law made in times of crisis are very often pertinent to those specific circumstances, and that normative practice reemerges following the crisis.And whether or not a spirit of leniencies receives a tailwind among Orthodox rabbinic authorities is something which will only be discernible a long time after the coronavirus pandemic has passed.In a note of caution, Kahn stated that, “In Jewish law, evolutionary processes work better than revolutionary ones.”The rabbi added that for any significant leniencies to take hold requires a prominent and highly respected rabbi to make such rulings, referencing a groundbreaking but controversial decision made by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein regarding fertility treatments which was fiercely opposed in some quarters but ultimately adopted, in part because of Feinstein’s stature.RABBI JEFFREY WOOLF, a historian of Jewish law in the Talmud Department of Bar Ilan University, stated that the flexible positions taken by rabbis in some Orthodox communities during the coronavirus crisis have been a good example of the Jewish law process working as it should, by taking into consideration the extreme situations.But Woolf, too, noted that decisions in Jewish law are very case specific, and that the weight of precedent is often weak in a different circumstance.The professor said, however, that he believed some of the changes that coronavirus has wrought will impact normative Jewish practice in the future, in particular the use of electronic communications for prayer.Woolf said that rulings such as allowing video conferencing to say the mourner's prayer in this present situation, may give leeway down the road to rabbis being more receptive to using electronic means to help those having difficulties attending a live prayer service.“The discussion of Jewish law has had an overwhelming tendency to be stringent in recent times, going back to the 19th century and Judaism’s encounter with modernity, and this has often not been healthy in a lot of areas, like conversion and agunot,” said Woolf.But he said that a broad spirit of permissive rulings in Jewish law was unlikely, especially taking into account the diverse nature of Orthodox communities, from liberal to ultra-Orthodox.He also asserted that extreme rulings are largely confined to extreme times, and added that there was no historical era in which a phenomenon of across-the-board leniencies were adopted on multiple issues.“I personally would hope that this [recent] dynamism would lead to more flexible solutions for some problems we face, but a new spirit would differ within different communities, and would anyway be on an issue-by-issue basis,” he said. In summing up, Woolf said that, “the norm in Jewish law is an even keel between leniency and stringency.”
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