Monday, August 31, 2009

Flying Rabbis and Building Fences: The Right Way to Respond to H1N1

It was the perfect newspaper picture: fifty Rabbis sitting on a plane, sounding the shofar. They were on a special charter flight flying over Israel, hoping to use special prayers to ward off an onslaught of H1N1.

Now, I love prayer; without it, Judaism is unthinkable. And I appreciate how these Rabbis want to protect the entire community. But even so, I wasn’t happy with this flight. By emphasizing an exotic form of prayer, these Rabbis seem to have forgotten that in Judaism, using purel is also a religious act.

Safety is a religious obligation. The Bible requires that a roof be properly gated to prevent people from falling off it. The late chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Benzion Uziel, included in this commandment the employer's responsibility to ensure occupational safety, and the late leader of the Edah Hacharedit, Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Weiss, saw this commandment as an injunction against reckless driving. So why are Rabbis flying around in planes instead of handing out purel dispensers?

Regrettably, this can be traced to a false dichotomy between the ethical and the ritual. Some mistakenly see ritual requirements, such as the kosher laws and the Sabbath, as “true” Judaism, and underemphasize Judaism’s ethical requirements. This is why it’s not unusual for Orthodox Jews to be extremely punctilious about ritual commandments, and at the same time smoke like chimneys and drive like maniacs. In particular, we ignore the responsibility of committed Jews to take responsibility for the world politically, ethically, economically.

In contemporary society, there is a new phenomenon behind this false dichotomy. Orthodox Jews are often seen as exotic figures straight out of the movies. We look different, eat different foods, and have different holidays. To the mass media, Judaism is primarily about rituals that make Jews mysterious and different.

Unfortunately, Jews have internalized this view of Judaism, and we now imagine the primary purpose of Judaism is simply to be different. This is why mundane topics like safety and ethics are neglected; after all, being ethical isn’t all that exotic.

Of course, as both Rabbi Akiva and Hillel emphasize, ethics are the foundation of Judaism. Yet this emphasis does not devalue the Torah’s rituals. On the contrary, combined with ethics, these rituals become part of a powerful, meaningful whole. Judaism is not about being exotic, it's about being holy. Defining Judaism solely by being different puts us in danger of becoming caricatures of ourselves.

Indeed, many great Rabbis hold a much broader view of Judaism. Rabbi Yehuda Amital, the former Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion, was once asked what position he would seek if he was asked to join the Israeli cabinet. He explained he would want to be minister of Health, because Halacha demands one be more stringent about health than any other religious requirement. The late Klausenberger Rebbe, Rabbi Yekusiel Halberstam, saw treating other human beings with great compassion as his legacy, and made it his life’s work to open a hospital in the city of Netanya. To these Rabbis, safety and ethics were not at all secular concerns.

Safety is a religious issue, and health measures are the authentic Jewish response to H1N1. Thinking otherwise produces a movie set Judaism that is both narrow minded and empty.

(much of this is recycled from an old post of mine)


lvnsm said...

I agree, ethics and spir practices combined are both very important in a Torah life, and are both needed inorder to help the world phys and spir;

In regards to health, yep we need both prayer and to take precaution like washing hands and not smoking

Dan - Israeli Uncensored News said...

The only precedent I know of was when the rabbis flew in a British plane over Palestine in WWII as Rommel was pushing toward here