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Rabbi's Monthly Message

 RabbiLernerHeadshotBooks  "Communitarianism Trumps Individualism"

 

Click HERE to view the original HaHodesh column.

 

Does Judaism teach us anything about the Coronavirus pandemic?

We are half a year into a surreal experience of a pandemic that shows no signs of abating, nor does its impact on most aspects of life seem to wane at all.

And this is serious.

During the peak in our area so far back in April, there were many, many losses. My heart breaks for the families in our community who have been impacted by this in large and small ways. The death of a parent whose caregiver unknowingly brought the virus; of the partners who could not even attend their loved one’s funeral due to the pandemic; the best friend who leaves behind three children and on and on it goes...

Although we sometimes feel helpless in the face of this scourge, there are some things we can actually do to reduce its spread. Most importantly, wearing a mask.

I have been saddened, confused, and even angered by seeing people without masks this summer. While most masks do not offer a great amount of protection to the wearer, collectively, everyone wearing masks helps the community a great deal. Masks cut down the overall amount of aerosolized particles, which, in turn, reduces the number one way the Coronavirus is spread. Nonetheless, according to a Gallup Poll in mid-July, only 44% of Americans’ always wear a mask when away from home.

Those of our political leaders who do not wear masks mislead others, literally unmasking them. It is a direct violation of the Torah’s precept: lifnei iveir al titein mikhshol – do not place a stumbling block before the blind (Lev.19:14) as people are following their poor example and not wearing masks.

Think of Herman Cain who attended a rally supporting the maskless president without a mask, caught COVID there, and died a few weeks later. I think you can make a strong case that these leaders have blood on their hands.

I’ve thought about why we are such poor mask-wearers. Beyond the negative modeling by political leaders, there is the anti-science and anti-press mindset that seems widespread. Of course, our Mishnah says that we should give people the benefit of the doubt, so I try: they must be so afraid – fearful of losing their income, their social connections – but still, their behaviors endanger us all.

Maybe they, like our leadership, expect that the virus will simply disappear. My heart goes out to those who don’t have the mental, economic or emotional capacity to get masks and adopt a new routine. But that does not come near explaining why so many are maskless.

 All of this brings me to an even more frightening statistic: that only 50% of Americans plan on getting the COVID-19 vaccine when one is ready.

What?!?!

Of all the frightening things I have read during this pandemic (and there have been many!), this one is the worst.

Vaccines work when most people take them. As someone who is immunosuppressed, I am first in line to get the flu vaccine each year. I am counting on the fact that many people will get vaccinated. That’s how vaccines work. They only work when most people get them.

Dr. Fauci said that for the COVID-19 vaccine to be effective 75% of Americans will have to get it, although he did say that 85% or higher would be far better.

But our country has become more and more obsessed with a fierce fixation on individualism. While we might understand the American colonists’ impulse to reject the British Empire with the phrase “Don’t tread on me,” today this is a dangerous phenomenon.

This individualistic tendency is enshrined in the license plates of our neighbors’ to the north (New Hampshire): “Live Free or Die.”

Really?!?

Even classic philosophers with individualistic bents like Immanuel Kant and Jean-Jaques Rousseau would be shocked by some of the behaviors we find in our country today. There is selfishness, a desire to see things through one’s own eyes to the negation of everyone else. That is certainly not part of the Jewish tradition, nor is it part of the United States of America in which I was raised which espoused camaraderie and teamwork.

This knee-jerk libertarianism is not only hurting our response to this pandemic, but it is also fueling our inability to help people who are suffering economically.

The Torah warns us against “rugged individualism,” a term coined by President Herbert Hoover who presided over the Great Depression. In the book of Deuteronomy, the Torah explains that if you are successful, you might say: “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.” (Deut 8:17) That is not the case, it is God, it is the entire planet, it is everyone, it is the entire web of life, all the intellectual wisdom of all previous generations and all the spiritual energy that flows through each moment that allows us to succeed.

No one is an island. No one exists alone.

Like many great traditions, Judaism has understood this for millennia. Judaism does not have a monastic tradition. We live in communities because human beings have evolved to live in communities for good (helping and supporting each other) and sometimes this can be bad (gossiping about each other – which can also have a communal side benefit).

Judaism does not know from individualism run amuck. Judaism is a civilization of communities or what philosophy calls communitarianism.

Communitarianism is an approach to life that focuses on the connection between the individual person and the community. It posits that our identity is forged by the community. And when the individual’s rights are in conflict with those of the community, it is not the individual’s rights that win out, but the community’s.

For years, I have been teaching a class on Wednesday mornings where we have been studying the Shulhan Arukh, the basic code of Jewish law written in 1565 in Northern Israel. If one loses a loved one, it teaches, and a holiday occurs during shivah, the seven day mourning period, the shivah is shortened. This is a real challenge: but what the tradition was reminding us is that the community’s needs play a significant role, even the dominant one.

Even though there is terrible suffering in this pandemic, we are also learning a great deal through it.

One lesson is really basic: that we as human beings survive when we work together as a community. Several ad-hoc groups including our Social Action chairs, our Hineni Committee and Hineni Connecting Team and its chairs along with our rabbinic intern, Becca Weintraub, Rabbi Kling Perkins, and myself gathered dozens of volunteers to reach out to everyone here at Emunah over the last months. We have extended ourselves to helping people in small and large ways, keeping in touch with people who are isolated, making sure that people can get food, etc.

Over this time, my family has been taking walks together whenever we can. My extended Lapidus family in Lexington, Newton, NYC, Philadelphia, Providence and Israel has instituted a Sunday Zoom call so three generations can keep in touch. These moments of connection have been islands of joy amidst all of this upheaval.

The Jewish people have been practicing connecting in so many ways for millennia, always placing community before the individual. Our great country would do well to emulate us.

Communitarianism trumps individualism and it may just save your life and the lives of many others.

* * * * * *

As we approach the High Holy Days, we will share many more messages with you by email, by video, but let me just take this opportunity to wish you and your family a shanah tovah. Shnat bri’ut veshalom, a year of good health and peace. Sharon, Talya, Ari, and Matan all join me in wishing you a happy, healthy and safe year where we find and TAKE a vaccine that will allow us all to be together in person and HUG each other safely soon!

Shanah tovah,

Rabbi David Lerner

781/861-0300, ext. 22; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.