Rabbis & Coronavirus

Gavriel Cohn,

לבן ריק
לבן ריק
צילום: ערוץ 7
Gavriel Cohn
grew up in the Jewish community of London. He is currently a student at University College London (UCL).

In the UK, over the last few weeks, the columns of our Jewish press have been somewhat taken up with criticism against rabbi's responses to the current coronavirus crisis. In my view such complaints have been unjustified.

Perhaps the most severe critique levelled against the rabbinate has been concerning it's halachic inflexibility. Several voices have condemned the rabbis for forbidding Pesach Sederim to be broadcast over Zoom. However, this ban was not due to the rabbis’ own obstinance, but rather the Law’s. In this respect, rabbis are jurists, scrutinising Jewish Law to find out what it sanctions in each case put before them. In Israel, a group of Sephardic rabbis put forward, so I am told, a flimsy legal argument to allow using Zoom on Seder Night. This was thus rejected outright by more competent legal scholars. Other ethical-legal principles do indeed have a place in these complex halachic deliberations, as they are also part of Jewish Law, and many rabbis, for example, urged people to maintain contact with those “at risk” over the phone or through Zoom during Yom Tov. Nevertheless, the most authoritative scholars concluded that the Law would not permit Zoom to be used indiscriminately on Shabbat or Yom Tov. Maimonides in his Guide to the Perplexed (3:34) writes that the Law does not always provide each individual with the best outcome. Perhaps such is the case concerning this ruling in our times. For better or for worse, this is the cost of halacha, a general and absolute legal system.

Furthermore, regarding the broader response of rabbis during this crisis, I personally have witnessed the very opposite of those negative characterisations, the accusations that rabbis have done too little to engage their flock. My local rabbi has worked tirelessly to remain connected with his community and to assist all those in need. He is contactable almost all hours of the day or night and answers a constant barrage of halachic queries sent to him, doing so with a staggering depth of knowledge and expertise, matched equally by his sensitivity. Perhaps he is exceptional. Nevertheless, I have attended countless Zoom lectures delivered by other rabbis as well, some of whom, I can assume, were not previously accustomed to using such technology! All were desperate to study, teach, and spread words of encouragement to others. They, instead, should be applauded.

From my experience at least, these criticisms against our religious leaders are thus unreasonable. However, such complaints may be inevitable and, as Maimonides rules elsewhere, the rabbis are commanded to bear their community's grumbling with patience (Mishneh Torah, Laws of the High Court, 25:2).