The Holy Chutzpah of Saving Lives: My Recommendations to the Community

By keeping restriction on meetings we are fulfilling the mitzvah of saving a life, Hatzalah Nefeshos. When we follow health regulations we are doing a mitzvah.

By Rabbi Yonah Bookstein

Along with many of other rabbis in Los Angeles, I have signed a second rabbinic letter asking our communities to adhere to county public health regulations and the advice of experts in infectious diseases.

Our previous recommendations haven’t entirely worked. Most people are following the recommendations, both from communal leaders and medical experts, with vigilant social distancing and other measures. However, in addition to “backyard Shabbos minyanim” and casual social gatherings, we know of several orthodox synagogues with minyanim on Shabbos in violation of county and city ordinances.

People across the community are justly feeling the pull towards gathering together socially and in prayer. We are all looking forward to going back to shuls and we could never have imagined they would be closed for so long. We are all eager to sing, dance and celebrate, or to mourn our losses together. So as the weeks turn to months, people we know and love, are gathering in ad-hoc groups to daven together for loved ones in dire need of healing, and others for Shabbos prayers or celebrations. These gatherings may be one-off or regular, but currently all are breaking the law, the advice of all public health experts, and the consensus of the worlds leading rabbis and rabbinical organizations.

What’s the best way to show leadership on an individual level or on a communal level when members of our community go against the recommendations of the rabbis and local public health authorities? Is it harsh rebuke and punitive measures or are there other paths we can walk? 

Everybody knows that rebuke and punishment often backfire, have negative repercussions, and ultimately may not work. As we learn from King Solomon, “do not reprove the scoffer lest he hate you.” (Mishlei 9:8) We also learn from Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon who said no one can give proper reproof. “Rabbi Akiva said: I swear that there is no one in this generation that knows how to give reproof.” (Sifre Kodoshim) 

Therefore, if we want to encourage communal adherence to public health guidelines and end backyard minyanim and social gatherings until they are permitted by law and Halacha, we have to 1) better educate the community on why we reached our conclusions 2) show our love, understanding and compassion for all those struggling with the shut down of communal life 3) demonstrate personally ways we can thrive in our connection with Hashem and Torah, without putting any life at risk.

Judaism Values Life About All Else

Judaism values protection of life above all else. Governmental actions in the coming weeks and months on decisions to reopen commerce and education, must balance relaxing health quarantines with political and economic considerations. Halacha, which places guarding one’s life and health above such considerations, may thus arrive at different recommendations. 

Please know, as rabbis we take no pleasure in shutting down our shuls. We have no benefit from cancelling kiddush. We take no joy in halting communal in-person activities. But we are facing a mighty foe, a deadly virus which has killed almost 90,000 Americans in a matter of months — Jews dying at a higher rate because or our extremely active social communities — and is killing fifty people a day in Los Angeles County.

If there were a mass murderer loose on the streets of Los Angeles who was killing 50 people a day, would we feel comfortable walking around like “business as usual” or letting our children play unguarded in the front lawn? Not likely, We would be taking insane precautions. We would be doing whatever was possible to protect ourselves and our loved ones. Remember the precautions that we took when we lost a dozen lives in tragic synagogue shootings in other cities? We totally upended how we operate our synagogues to save lives across the world. That is how much the we as Jews care about protecting life. We wouldn’t gamble with our children’s and loved one’s lives if there were a mass murderer on the loose who kills people randomly. We also cannot gamble with the lives of our elders, our parents and grandparents and the immunocompromised who make up a huge percentage of our community by ignoring lifesaving advice.

We are Not Facing an Enemy That Wants to Destroy Jews Alone

One of the defining features of Jewish history, from Moses until today, is chutzpah, and specifically a resistance to authority. The stiff-necked Children of Israel who traveled the Sinai desert are not so different from the people of any particular contemporary synagogue or shul. 

Chutzpah, one of the most formidable Jewish powers we have after prayer, can be very Holy. If it were not for Holy Chutzpah there would be no Judaism, no Torah, no Israel – we would have long ago faded into the annals of history. We would play a minor supporting role in the history books. 

Holy Chutzpah is critical and necessary for Jewish survival. Performing circumcisions in secret under Soviet rule was chutzpah. Smuggling a shofar into Auschwitz in a pot of soup was chutzpah. And the greatest miracle of the modern era, the creation and continual survival of Israel, would not be possible without sustained chutzpah.

We know this in our hearts. We know deep down that the same chutzpah that leads people to run “banned” ad-hoc prayers groups is ironically connected to chutzpah that has kept the Jew

ish people going for all these years in exile. 

Today, thank God, the reality that we face is not cruel Soviet or Nazi oppression. We are not facing down an enemy that is organizing to deprive Jews of our rights or religious freedoms. The battle against coronavirus is not a battle for the soul and future of the Jewish people. We are fighting a plague that doesn’t discriminate based on class, race, or religion. We are fighting to save lives. 

Therefore, if we want to persuade our people to do the right thing we have to inspire one another to do the right thing. 

We have to become full of the chutzpah to save lives and loving and supporting one another safely. We have to activate our chutzpah of adaptation and innovation. At the core of this all, we have to strengthen our chutzpah of acceptance — this is God’s will.  

God Wants us to Strengthen Other Mitzvoth

While the gates of communal prayer, schools, simcha, and group learning are closed, the gates of chesed, lovingkindness, compassion, teshuva, character development, honoring our elders and our children, are wide open. We have to work on strengthening ways of reaching God and holiness outside the walls of the shul.

We have to show only LOVE AND COMPASSION to those who want to pray together. It’s not easy for those of us who love our synagogues and prayer groups to pray alone. All communities, across the spectrum of dynamism and solemnity, miss our friends and our communal prayer so much, may God restore it quickly. 

But praying in a minyan is not what God wants of us right now. 

God wants us to be practice hatzalah nefashos, being life-savers.

God wants us to strengthen the mitzvah of v’nishmartem l’nafshoseichem,

living lives that are more conscientious and protective of our

physical health.

God wants us to work on our emunah, our faith.

God wants us to strengthen Kibud Zakeinim, honoring and respecting our elders.

God wants us doing chesed, acts of lovingkindness, and helping those impacted by the pandemic and economic crisis. 

God wants us to invest personal time in chinchuch banim, taking a more active role in educating our children.

God wants us to work on shalom bayis, strengthening our relationships and families.

By keeping these restrictions, the Holy Chutzpah of Protecting Lives, and working on strengthening the mitzvot that we can perform, we are saving lives, and we are hastening the arrival of the Messianic Era.