No Holds Barred: Rabbis have failed to inspire during coronavirus

All of this sounds draconian and uninviting. Who would want to attend a synagogue or a minyan where you are being policed?

The poor man’s Passover prayer (photo credit: TOA HEFTIBA/UNSPLASH)
The poor man’s Passover prayer
(photo credit: TOA HEFTIBA/UNSPLASH)
As someone who has to say Kaddish three times a day for my father, I see the state of our synagogues up close and personal. Understandably, they’re catastrophic. Almost all shuls are closed but for about 15 to 20 people who are allowed inside under the strictest rules you can imagine. One synagogue in Manhattan posted rules that include temperature checks at the door including the Sabbath, masks must be worn at all times and cannot be removed even for an instant, no singing whatsoever, the minyan will not wait even a moment for people saying Kaddish, and if you haven’t pre-registered and received approval for attending, ostensibly for the purposes of contact-tracing, forget it. You ain’t never getting in.
Then you have the backyard minyans, some of which are done as an officially sanctioned extension of a large synagogue and many of which are done independent of any official sanction. Regardless, rabbinic authorities are known to send messengers to the minyanim to check whether they’re maintaining proper social distancing and people are wearing masks.
All of this sounds draconian and uninviting. Who would want to attend a synagogue or a minyan where you are being policed?
But to be absolutely clear, let me say at the outset I completely endorse these restrictions. Yes, they are unpleasant and uninviting. But if we are to have prayer services, we must first ensure that everyone is safe and the protection of life is primary.
And if the rabbis have to become police in order to enforce the rules, so be it. That’s our job. Protect and promote life. The Rabbinical Council of Bergen County in Northern New Jersey, where I live, famously shut down all the shuls right after Purim in March and no doubt saved countless lives by pre-empting infection, as that most joyous of Jewish festivals somehow became a superspreader among the New York metropolitan community.
My issue with us rabbis is not that we’re being too strict but rather that we forgot that being the police is only a secondary role. Our first role is to inspire, something that religion in general, and the rabbis in particular, have failed at during the coronavirus.
Before I elaborate, let me first make it clear that this abominable virus actually provided an opening for religious relevance. Before the coronavirus, science was seen as supreme, gradually nudging out religion. Once upon a time human looked at the darkening sky as the sun was blotted out in the middle of the day and they concluded that the gods must be angry. So they sacrificed a virgin to appease them.
Along came the scientists and said, “Wait a minute. The sun’s coming back. This is all natural. It’s called a full solar eclipse. And it’s so regular that we can actually predict them years into the future with perfect precision.”
When the Black Death decimated one third of Europe’s population, the population went out and massacred the Jews for poisoning the wells. But along came scientists – sadly for us Jews only centuries later – and said, “Why are you massacring innocent people? This is a disease spread by the lice on rats that are carrying Bubonic plague.”
And ever since then science has been ascendant, slowly but surely marginalizing and eclipsing religion. Who needs to pray to the gods for water when we have advanced irrigation systems or pray to God stop influenza when we can go to the neighborhood drug store and get a $10 vaccine that will protect us.

BUT THEN came the coronavirus and science was helpless. Doctors and medical researchers were flummoxed about every aspect of the virus. It can be transmitted up to six feet. No, wait. A person’s sneeze can carry up to 25 feet. You shouldn’t wear masks, as Dr. Anthony Fauci first said, because nurses and doctors were short. No, it turns out we must all wear masks because they are essential to stop transmission (I agree that where we cannot definitively social distance we must all wear masks, of course). The virus can be prevented by hydroxychloroquine. No, that medication will give you a heart attack and kill you. No, wait, a new study says it won’t create heart arrhythmias. The virus will recede with humidity and heat, which is why Florida has barely been hit while New York is being crushed. Sorry, now that Florida being decimated in high summer it turns out we had no idea what we were talking about.
I’m not saying this to criticize the medical professionals. To the contrary, having worked with many medical professionals to save lives, I know how dedicated they are to their professions, to a degree that makes them positively saintly and angelic.
Rather, I’m saying this to point out that when science threw up its hands, this time, and said, “We honestly don’t know how to stop this virus or when we’ll have a vaccine,” the rabbis should have stepped forward with a message of inspiration, uplift and hope.
As the nightly news told everyone every day, “We’re all going to die,” it was the job of religion to step forward and say, “Fear not, where the limits of science are reached the horizons of faith begin. Have faith in God. He will ultimately protect us and give humanity the courage and wherewithal to withstand this plague. Yes, we have lost many of our elderly and our most vulnerable. And we protest this injustice to God who promised to always protect His most exposed children. But God made promises to humanity that He will ultimately not shirk.”

WHAT PEOPLE are most searching for today is hope. What they most seek is a way out of despair. Science cannot provide it. It can only continue to hammer away at the virus with the tireless researchers who will ultimately find a vaccine to stop the spread of the virus.
But religion is the overriding framework that says, “The universe is not an accident and human life is not a chance occurrence of evolution. Our earth is not governed by chaos. Rather, there is an intelligent Creator who called forth life from nothingness and who providentially governs the affairs of humankind. History is not accidental but directional. Every day we move from the original primordial darkness to greater and more complex light. We gravitate from the primitive plagues of earlier generations, drawing ever closer to a Messianic era in which death, hunger and disease will ultimately be defeated and light will triumph over darkness.”
That is the meaning of faith. To give people hope amidst despair. To lend positive vision amid an overwhelming darkness.
Now, while we rabbis, rightly, walk around our outdoor prayer services making sure that no one is wearing their mask as a chin guard, should we not also be giving everyone the message that coronavirus will be defeated? While we do our temperature checks at the door, should we not also provide a soul-uplift inside? While we warn people that if they are lax about social distancing they risk illness and death, should we not also remind them that God controls the universe, that a loving creator direct history, and ultimately they will be granted health and life?
We keep on worrying that the coronavirus will overwhelm a city or a nation’s healthcare system. But has it also even overwhelmed the nation’s faith-care system?
While the media seem to think that their job is tell to us that we are all going to die, the job of the rabbi is to negate that cynical and soul-destroying message and assure us that God will protect us and that we will live.
The writer, “America’s Rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the author of The Israel Warrior, Judaism for Everyone and Renewal: The Seven Central Values of the Jewish Faith. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @RabbiShmuley.