Things They Didn’t Teach in Rabbinical School: Coronavirus and Community

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, February 28th, 2020 / 3 Adar 5780

Summary: This week’s Oasis Songs focuses on flu season, coronavirus and implications for our community as well as some behavior changes we are asking our kehilah to engage in or refrain from. Please note that there is no reason for alarm at this point, and that our traditions and culture of being a warm and welcoming community remain at the forefront of our concerns.

Over the past several weeks, I’ve been having conversations with doctors and infectious disease specialists about the coronavirus. Fred and I, as well as some of our professional staff, have held discussions about what this means for our kehillah and if changes of any sort are appropriate to keep us safe. This has even given me an excuse to reach out to an old friend and former congregant who is an infectious disease specialist.

We are putting in place some measures to reduce risk of transmission. Many of these are good protocol during any flu season, and are especially important as the world follows the vectors and incident rates of the current coronavirus pandemic. Please note that we are being proactive now so that our community remains a strong and vibrant center of Jewish life.

I will enumerate those measures below. Before doing so, it’s worthwhile to consider some Jewish perspectives on illness, as well as what we lose by trying to keep ourselves and our congregation safe.

Illness in the Tradition

Unsurprisingly, both the Bible and the Talmud confront illness head on. As we know, the Torah is not squeamish about reality. Illness, intimate relations, monetary status, politics. All have pride of place in our sacred writings precisely because the Torah is a guide for life itself. The image of illness that emerges is complex. In Exodus, chapters 15 and then 23, God promises our ancestors that we won’t be infected by any of the sicknesses plaguing the Egyptians and will keep illness away from us. We are told both that God will heal us, and more importantly, we are enjoined to heal ourselves. That latter precept is without a doubt one of the reasons that so many Jews have gravitated to the practice of medicine.

Our Sages also veered from how the ancient world viewed medicine, arguing instead that illness was caused by the anatomy and pathology of people and animals. While they didn’t have as robust an empirical approach as we do, their way of thinking about disease shares much in common with contemporary models.

The Morality of Illness

Where ancient Jewish medical reasoning departs is its emphasis that there is sometimes an ethical aspect to illness. Haza’l, our Sages of old, seemed to understand that some illness was caused by weakness in the body itself, they also believed that acting immorally could also be the cause of some ailments. Before sharing a few examples of this, let’s keep in mind that the Jerusalem Talmud states that while “ninety nine people die of heat (stroke), while only one dies at the hand of heaven.” In other words, our moral behavior impacts health, but only in 1% of the cases. I don’t know where contemporary research stands on this, but this is an important corrective to those who believe they brought illness on to themselves. In almost every case, we should not view our medical challenges as caused by God.

But what about the one percent? Famously, the Bible notes a form of tzara’at, or skin affliction (vitiligo?) that results when people engage in lashon hara, or irresponsible speech. Moral turpitude leads to visible skin lesions. This is an example of bad behavior causing disease.

Some illness, meanwhile, can be avoided by heightened ethical behavior. Thus, in midrash Deuteronomy Rabbah, we read that those who incline their ears to words of Torah will be less likely to suffer from ear aches. I suppose if the choice is between a very loud concert or quiet Torah study this makes sense.

Additionally, our tradition connects much illness to changes in our behavior (BT BB 146A). In today’s world, many researchers continue to seek scientific understanding of the mind-body connection—namely the role of social, emotional and behavioral impacts on physical health.

Things We Can Do and Changes at CNS

As I noted, our Sages understood that behavior is one cause of illness. In the case of coronavirus, and flu season in general, this is an important reminder. Despite the conspiracy theories out there, I don’t think coronavirus is cause by human behavior or actions. But the spread and transmission of it does appear to be helped by our behaviors. Given that:

1. We have instructed our caterer not to put out food in bowls that normally are scooped up by hand, such as pretzels.
2. You will find instructions from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) on best protocols posted in several places around the building. Linked here.
3. Our facilities staff will ensure that our hand-sanitizer dispensers are full and in visible locations. We will have one out by the prayerbooks on Shabbat, and request that you use the sanitizer before and after you pick up your prayerbooks and chumashim. Frequent handwashing and avoiding hand-to-face contact is advisable
4. During the remainder of flu season, we ask that you refrain as much as possible from skin contact with congregants. Thus, please restrict kissing and handshaking. This means that I won’t be shaking hands with people during the Torah procession—even though I use hand-sanitizer before and after the Torah parade, I would still be a vector of transmission during the procession. This change will remain in effect for the remainder of flu season.
5. If you are sick, we request that you don’t attend services or other large synagogue gatherings. We are fortunate to have live streaming available, so that people who use technology on Shabbat can still participate remotely. .
6. Senior staff will continue to monitor the coronavirus and to speak with medical experts. In pandemics such as this, best practices are something of a moving target. As more information becomes available, we will adjust our policies accordingly. Senior staff will also be working with the President and the Board as needed to address any necessary changes to our programming/building measures should it become necessary.
7. Please know that we want to keep everyone safe to the best of our ability. That requires that we all do our part. The goal in these preparations is always to ensure that we adapt so that we can continue to welcome and gather with one another, celebrate our simchas and support one another in difficult moments.

The Cost of Protection

Human contact is healing. It is why the high priest would visit those who had tzara’at. Contact reduces anxiety and helps us feel more connected. The power of appropriate touch is a bedrock of human community and there’s a body of research that demonstrates what happens when people are denied such contact. So even as we do our level best to take reasonable precautions, let’s keep in mind that there is a cost to these new behaviors.

A long time ago, a New York congregant and doctor taught me what he called the “surgeon’s handshake.” It’s an elbow to elbow touch—and while not the same as a hug or handshake, it is a reminder that we are here for each other and care for each other.

My mother was fond of an old adage—an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Let’s add on to that now—an ounce of timely prevention is worth a pound of worry.

Have a peaceful—and healthy—Shabbat,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

    • Have you or a loved one ever wondered what you did to become sick? How did you address those thoughts?
    • What do you believe is the connection between the mind and body? How do our thoughts impact our physical health? How does our health influence our thinking?

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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