Don’t distort Judaism in Uman during the coronavirus crisis – opinion

Hasidim who wish to go to Uman have the right to do so, but they should do so in the name of their own new religion, and not in the name of Judaism.

JEWISH PILGRIMS pray at the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov on the eve of Rosh Hashanah in Uman, Ukraine, September 20, 2017. (photo credit: VALENTYN OGIRENKO/REUTERS)
JEWISH PILGRIMS pray at the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov on the eve of Rosh Hashanah in Uman, Ukraine, September 20, 2017.
The controversy surrounding traveling to Uman or being able to pray in a synagogue on Rosh Hashanah has led to a misrepresentation of classical Jewish law on the importance of health and saving lives, and it is important to teach those basic sources in order to disprove the distortion of religious Judaism being touted by extremists and fanatics.
The Torah makes clear that one is obligated to stay healthy, commanding twice in the same chapter: “Be cautions and guard yourself very well.... Guard yourselves very well” (Deuteronomy 4:9 and 15).
Maimonides explains these words in “Laws of a Murderer and Saving Lives” (Mishneh Torah, 14:11,4) saying, “There is a positive commandment to remove, guard oneself, protect oneself, and guard oneself very well from any obstacle that includes a risk to one’s life.” He continues, “The Sages prohibited many things because they endanger lives.”
There are specific commandments related to protecting lives. For example, “When you build a new house, make a guardrail for your roof so that you don’t cause blood in your house, lest someone fall from there” (Deuteronomy 22:8).
The Babylonian Talmud is replete with rules meant to protect one’s health, such as: 1) parents are obligated to teach their children how to swim (Kiddushin 29a); 2) one may not cut a slice of bread from a loaf sitting in one’s hand (Berachot 8a); 3) one may not cross a shaky or unstable bridge (Rosh Hashanah 16b); and 4) one cannot enter rushing water that is higher than your waist (Yoma 87b).
The message is clear: Anything that is a danger to one’s health and a risk to one’s life is absolutely prohibited according to Torah law.
The Torah not only commands one to guard his or her own life but even commands violating prohibitions in order to save others’ lives. The Torah states (Leviticus 18:5): “Keep my decrees and laws; the person who obeys them will live by them.” The Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 85a) explains that the last words of that verse, “V’chai bahem,” teach that one must violate the Sabbath in order to save a life.
But the command to transgress the rules of the Torah to save a life is not limited to the Sabbath. The Talmud rules (Yoma 82b) that all laws of the Torah must be violated to save a life, with the exception of three cardinal sins: murder, idolatry and adultery. This means that in a hypothetical scenario whereby any Jew violating every transgression other than those three would keep someone alive for an extra minute, they would be obligated to do so.
SUCH IS the priority that the Torah places on keeping people alive.
Maimonides takes this value one step further. He begins chapter five of “The Laws of the Foundations of Torah” by teaching, “All Jews are commanded to sanctify God’s great name…. How?”
At this point I would have expected Maimonides to give an example of a Jew doing something remarkable for the world that would lead people to praise God, or to expound on the ultimate sanctification of God’s name – giving up one’s life for God if the situation called for it.
But that is not what Maimonides writes. He continues, “If an idolater coerces a Jew to either transgress one of the laws of the Torah or he will kill him, transgress the Torah law and do not be killed.” He then quotes the verse “live by them” as his source, but explains that if it’s one of the three cardinal sins, one should allow himself to be killed and not violate it.
This means that we are not only commanded to transgress Torah laws to save a life, but that “sinning” and saving the life is the greatest sanctification of God’s name possible. We sanctify God’s name when we demonstrate and show the world that life is His highest value.
Which brings us to 2020 and COVID-19.
It doesn’t really matter how badly one wants to travel to Uman to be near the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov in Ukraine, or wants to sit in synagogue for the High Holy Days. The message from the above sources makes it clear: While praying in synagogue is important (though it is not a Torah commandment), and specific groups see great spiritual value in going to Uman (it is most certainly not a commandment of any kind!), if a determination is made that doing so could endanger one’s health or endanger the health of others, then not going to Uman and not going to synagogue is what the Torah requires, and is the way to sanctify God’s name.
So if specific groups and political parties want to go against the opinion of health officials, and want to lobby hard and pressure the prime minister for permission to go to Uman, or for more people to be allowed to pray in synagogues, it is their right to do so.
But they should do so in their own names and not in the name of God. They should do so in the name of their own new religion, and not in the name of Judaism. Because what they are creating is a hilul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name, and an absolute distortion of Judaism.
The writer works as senior manager, community outreach for and served as a member of the 19th Knesset. The views submitted do not necessarily reflect the positions of HonestReporting.