By Rabbi David J. Meyer
landmark book first published in 1952 described life in the European shtetl before the Holocaust. It was titled “Life is With People,” and that wisdom certainly continues to hold true. Especially for the Jewish people, a culture that never embraced monasticism as a higher pathway to wisdom, satisfaction, or fulfillment.
Being part of a community has always been a central component to Jewish identity and practice. For a faith that emphasizes deeds over belief and ethics above theology, Judaism has always been a cultural and religious expression that takes place in the public sphere, among others, and in community. In fact, the great 12th-century physician, philosopher, and legalist, Moses Maimonides, wrote that none of the elevated ethical principles of Torah, Bible, Talmud, and beyond would be relevant in isolation:
“All ethical principles concern the mutual relations between a person and another person and are given for the benefit of society. Imagine a person who is alone and has no connection whatever with anyone else; none of that person’s ethical qualities would be exercised or needed. They are necessary and useful only when a person comes into contact with others …”
(from “The Guide for the Perplexed”)
In the textbook for confirmation students that I authored some two decades ago, “The Rabbinic Driving Manual,” I teach that the essence of Jewish ethics derives from our social connections. Often, we make the mistake of thinking that Jewish ethics is concerned primarily with the “Big Issues,” such as abortion, capital punishment, world peace, and the like. But it is important to remember that Jewish ethics really operate on the daily, routine level of how we take responsibility for our actions and our property, and how we are always to be on the lookout for the sake and safety of others.
That is why we have ancient legislation in the Torah compelling us to eliminate potential hazards even if they are within our own, personal property. As part of an ancient building code, for instance, new homeowners were required to construct a parapet, a guardrail on the roofs of their houses (Deuteronomy 22:8). Rooftops were often used for daily activities, such as gardening, keeping livestock, or more commonly, as a way to catch a cool breeze on a warm summer’s evening. (Remember how King David happened to get a glance of Bathsheba while he was lounging up on the palace roof?) The parapet acted as a safeguard against someone accidentally slipping and falling off.
Later, Rabbinic law forbids a homeowner from keeping “a vicious dog or a broken ladder” on their property, even when no one was expected to enter aside from the owner (Talmud, Ketubot 41b). In other words, private owners were required to take extra precautions, perhaps some considered to be extreme, in order to protect the safety and well-being of others. Even more, when describing the behaviors of the truly “pious” of old, our sages didn’t detail how often they prayed, how strictly they performed the rituals of Jewish life, or how precisely they observed the dietary laws of Kashrut. Rather, we learn that the very pious of old used to bury their broken glass and pottery shards in the middle of their fields several feet below the surface, so in the circumstance that someday their property would become farmland, the shards would not become a hazard to someone operating a plow (Talmud, Bava Kamma 30a).
How do these teaching apply to our current crisis brought on by the pandemic spread of the coronavirus? Certainly our national, state, and local officials, government leaders, and health care experts have argued the urgency of “social distancing,” asking every one of us to use extreme measures to assure that we are not unintentionally spreading the virus, especially for the sake of the most vulnerable. Our hand-washing routines, avoiding of our normal handshakes and hugs, steering clear of gatherings of more than a minyan (10), and other inconveniences are all ways in which we can fulfill our ancient mandate to be on the lookout for the sake and safety of others. This idea is truly the heart of our Jewish ethical ideals.
At the time of this writing, we are just over a week into our self-isolations and quarantines, and certainly by press time, the circumstances will only have become more severe. The psychological toll of staying home is high, because as we know, “Life is with people.” But refraining from attending gatherings and limiting our time with others to only the most necessary settings is very much like erecting a parapet on our rooftop, because Judaism directs us to take measures that help protect the welfare of others – as well as ourselves!
How fortunate to have the various platforms of social media to help temper the challenge of isolation. I can probably vouch for all of my rabbinic colleagues that livestreaming of services and conducting business via Zoom or other programs marks a transformation, at least for the time being, of how we fulfill the sacred trust and mandate we have been given. It is my hope and prayer that our community, nation, and the world be granted the blessings of refuah sh’laymah: complete healing. Yes, the healing of our bodies, but equally vital, the healing of our spirits. And may we all be agents of such healing by doing all we can to protect one another during this unique time in all of our lives.
Rabbi David J. Meyer is senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead.