A Halakhic Letter and Practical Outline for Jewish Life Under COVID-19 at Congregation Neveh Shalom

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, March 27, 2020 / 2 Nisan 5780

A Halakhic Letter and Practical Outline for Jewish Life Under COVID-19 at Congregation Neveh Shalom

By David Kosak
Senior Rabbi
Congregation Neveh Shalom
Portland, Oreg

THROUGH A LENS OF FIRE: Hasidic Insights on the Torah

Summary: This letter is a replacement for the Oasis Song. It outlines, in broad strokes:

How Jewish practice has changed around the world during this global pandemic.
It teaches about the Jewish values that allow us to participate in ritual actions we normally don’t do, such as virtual services.
It presents some of the specific changes that we at CNS are doing as a community and outlines some of those communally accepted actions during this time, such as using a computer on Shabbat.

This letter, however, is not a legal teshuvah, which would be many times as long, and would bring in far more sources to explain and justify these changes. While I have a desire to write such a teshuvah, there are more pressing communal needs.

Photo above from my front yard. I like that this beautiful flower is wild and sturdy, self-propagating in yards all over Portland. We are also sturdy.

As COVID 19 continues to spread, Oregon has finally come under a complete lock-down, called “Stay Home, Stay Safe.” Despite the euphemistic name, this new order, and the restrictions leading up to it, have posed severe challenges to a religion and a culture that are centered on gathering, praying and breaking bread together.

The anxiety of this time has also increased mental and physical anguish for countless people. 911 has reported a greater than twenty percent increase of calls from those considering suicide. This is a distressing time. I encourage individuals who are struggling to reach out to professional therapists, clergy, family and friends and to seek the help necessary to manage the additional challenges and burdens that COVID-19 places upon us. There are many sources for help; our synagogue’s Coronavirus page provides links to some of those resources. Here is the link.

At the same time as our world and many of our assumptions about it and our place in it have shifted suddenly, we are blessed to be part of an ancient covenantal community. Our Jewish tradition is remarkably robust. Part of its durability has been the way our halakhic legal system has adjusted in every time and place. At its heart, this is not about law as law.

The halakhah has always been a reaffirmation of our relationship with God and community, and it has successfully accompanied us through Roman repression, medieval pogroms and even the fires of Auschwitz and Treblinka. It has stood as a beacon and a lighthouse, shining a path through the darkest moments of our extended history, and it can do so now as we face a global pandemic that has upended our lives, and that threatens to bring long-lasting hardship to our small and interconnected planet.

Why has something as seemingly dry as religious law sustained us? Why has it helped us maintain our faith in unimaginable scenarios? The answer to that question could be deservedly long. But let’s say it pithily. Jewish law and halakhah give us a mooring in uncertain times because they allow us to exert our values and commitments despite the outer world. Halakhah can shape the meaning of our experiences and our inner lives. Although most Jews probably don’t spend much time thinking about their lives through a halakhic lens, there is still value for a community as a whole to think about who it strives to be in times of turmoil.

What I want to lay out herein is a halakhic letter that defines and explains many of the choices we are making as a community regarding our religious and ritual life. It is my hope that this will be interesting for many, and instructive to those who do live and shape their lives by Jewish halakhah.

1. Changes in Jewish Practice Globally

Reading the Israeli news has been quite informative. Suddenly even very Orthodox communities who normally don’t consider an amplified voice to be a voice per halakhah, are permitting the Mourners Kaddish to be recited via a remote minyan, where there are never 10 people together in any location.

A group of Charedi rabbis in Israel have declared that one may convene a Passover seder by Zoom, but that one should start the computer before the holiday starts.

A couple of weeks ago, and important American rabbi at Yeshiva University, Rabbi Herschel Shachter, ruled that one could fulfill the mitzvah of hearing the megillah read remotely.

Chief Rabbi David Lau has banned kissing or touching a mezuzah, and issued a complete ban (issur gamur) on endangering others. Importantly, he stated that this is not because of pikuah nefesh, but another value to which I will return in a moment.

2. Pikuach Nefesh and Our Highest Values

Most Conservative and Reform Jews are well aware that saving a life (pikuach nefesh) overrides many other commandments. But the genius of our tradition recognized that some values are more important than life itself.

To phrase that differently, the value of life is itself sustained by an even higher hierarchy of value. Specifically, you can’t murder an innocent person to save your own or another person’s life, and you can’t commit certain acts of idolatry to save a life. From a Jewish worldview (hashkafa), the ultimate value of life comes from God, and if we undermine that faith, then the authoritative basis for preserving life is also destroyed. And if you want to imagine that your life is more valuable than another innocent person’s life, you also undermine the value of life

That may sound far-fetched, but it was the Nazi rejection of religious norms such as this that empowered their murderous ideology. They had no God, and no authority but their own rationalizations. They also often tested Jewish inmates by instructing them that if they didn’t kill another inmate, they themselves would be put to death. The group of Jews who lost sight of our life-enhancing values and believed their lives were more valuable than other innocents earned the ultimate derogation and were called kapos. These were Jewish collaborators who turned against other Concentration camp inmates.

Additionally, other limitations were placed on pikuach nefesh. It can’t be applied to save an abstract life—meaning an elderly person who might succumb to the Coronavirus. We can understand this, because if we allowed this principle to operate in the abstract, it would override any attempt to have communal norms or to imbue our lives with holiness. You can’t say from a place of halakhic integrity, “because of pikuach nefesh, I will use my computer.”

That means we can’t easily use pikuach nefesh to justify many forbidden actions. Instead, we need to ground the novel ways we are creating community electronically on Shabbat and Chag using other legal principles.

Ve-nishmartem me’od le-nafshoteichem” Deuteronomy 4:15

The Torah exhorts us “And you will guard yourselves greatly.” The Talmud (Berachot 32b) explains that this means we need to protect our own lives-and those of others. It is this principle that Rabbi Lau and others have turned to for justifying some of the wholesale suspension of Jewish ritual life, such as physically gathering for minyans. The Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement, meanwhile, has emphasized another Jewish value, “dina d’malkhuta dina.”—the law of the land is Jewish law.

3. Jewish Practice at Congregation Neveh Shalom: The Principle

Because of these sorts of principles, as well as our recognition that we must be together (al tifrosh min hatzibur—don’t separate yourself from community) and can only do that safely in virtual means, we have enacted a number of emergency measures using the principle of sha’at hadahak, or an emergency measure. While there are many limitations placed on this principle of emergency measures, at Neveh Shalom we are using it to permit any law that is d’rabanan in nature (meaning derived from our Sages and not from God or the Torah), and also to pursue every legal leniency when it applied to something that is d’oraita, (or understood as coming from God.)

Normally, we apply legal stringencies in Torah based commandments, and legal leniencies in matters that are d’rabanan. Here we are temporarily focussed on allowing all leniencies for the sake of protecting human life, but will not step beyond our law. For as our ancestors have taught us, our commitment to our values in even the most challenging of times increases our faith. During this global pandemic, our faith and resiliency are more important than ever.

So while all Jewish authorities recognize that writing on Shabbat is forbidden, there are numerous minority opinions who hold that writing on a computer does not count, because it is not an enduring form of writing and because writing might only refer to what we do with our hands, and not by a machine.

Similarly, the subject of the use of electricity is long and complicated—but apart from doing something with electricity that would be forbidden even if done manually (such as shaving on Shabbat, etc), there are minority opinions that allow its use for all sorts of permitted activities.

In normal times, those minority opinions are not considered valid. But during this global pandemic, based on sha’at hadahak and numerous other principles, we are permitting many actions that we as a community do not otherwise countenance.

Jewish Practice at Congregation Neveh Shalom: In Action

We are permitting the use of computers and phones for both Streaming and Zoom Services AND for necessary social interaction.

Streaming is a better halakhic option, because it can be set up before Shabbat, and doesn’t require human intervention on Shabbat.

But we are permitting Zoom because during this time of crisis, we are relying on the leniency as to what constitutes writing and what constitutes grama, or direct human action. So this Shabbat, for example, the Downstairs Minyan will be meeting by Zoom.

Additionally, because of the fear of loneliness and alienation, those who are in need of human contact may also text or use FaceTime, Zoom or other platforms to maintain relationships with others.

One should not, however, choose to write a permanent document that you intend to keep.

People Connected Virtually Can Constitute a Minyan for Prayer

Our tradition wisely understood the power of human presence. Being with people brings us joy and helps us to better bear hardship and grief. The Talmud declares that when ten people gather, God’s Shekhina, or Indwelling Presence, also joins with those people. This is the basis of a minyan, or prayer quorum, and it is both spiritually and psychologically astute. But during this time, ten people can gather virtually and recite kaddish, barkhu, and the kedushah.


Those of us who have gathered virtually also recognize that it is not the same as being together physically. There is tremendous value in recognizing that difference, and therefore, we are not reading Torah during this time period.

We have a historical basis for this practice, as well as a legal foundation. During Roman rule, Jews were forbidden to read Torah publically. They thought that they could break us by denying us the most symbolically Jewish act—our fidelity to our God-given Torah. Instead, our Sages introduced the practice of studying another section of the Bible together. This became the source for us chanting the Haftarah. They took a restriction, in other words, and turned it into an opportunity. What genius!

There is no doubt that, although it is not alive and has no will of its own, the Coronavirus is our enemy and has declared, so to speak, that we cannot gather to read Torah—or Haftarah.

Rather than mourn that fact (and thus substitute virtual ritual reading of the Torah during services), we encourage you to study the Torah portion and the Haftarah on your own, or in our increasingly robust number of online courses. Rather than seeing a restriction, we encourage you to be encouraged by our ancestors, and discover an opportunity to deepen your own knowledge of Torah.

When we are finally allowed to gather together, our excitement and love for the Torah scroll will be even greater because of this enforced separation.

As always, if you would like to connect with your clergy, we are all available for you, including Rabbi Isaak, Rabbi Eve Posen, Cantor Eyal Bitton and me.

Blessings for a meaningful Shabbat,

Rav D

If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.

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