Synagogues are meant to be places of refuge and spiritual renewal, but in the age of the coronavirus, they have the potential to become centers of transmission for the disease. Many people today are rethinking gathering in large groups and cancelling conferences and other events. So how should a religious community respond to the possibility of an epidemic?
The COVID-19 is not yet a major outbreak in the United States and there is no reason to cancel religious services, but there are certainly precautions we can take to protect ourselves and the community. First, of course, we should wash our hands often and use hand sanitizer, but there are other ways to be prepared that are specific to Jewish life.
When we gather in synagogue, we like to greet each other with kisses, hugs and handshakes, but it probably makes sense to switch to the safer elbow bump. We Jews also engage in various kinds of ritual kissing that can be problematic. In Israel, the Ashkenazi chief rabbi has advised people not to touch and kiss mezuzot on doorposts. One could extend that to using a tallit or prayerbook to kiss the Torah. Instead, one can use those objects to touch the Torah with honor without bringing them to our lips.
The chief rabbi notes that the tradition to kiss the mezuzah is a custom, not a commandment, and certainly can be eliminated to protect communal health. His pronouncement reminds me of the case of Rabbi Israel Salanter and an outbreak of Cholera in Vilna in 1848. The disease swept through the community around the time of Yom Kippur and the rabbi controversially ate food on the bima during the fast day to convince his congregants that their health was more important than even our most sacred ritual.
Hopefully, we will not be confronted with having to forgo the major observances of our tradition in the face of the coronavirus, but it is possible that as the disease spreads, health officials may advise religious institutions to cancel services and other gatherings. Right now the Centers for Disease Control has guidance for faith communities that focuses on other concerns, such as considering “the needs of older adults, persons with disabilities, and other individuals with access and functional needs”. These are the people most vulnerable to the virus, and as a religious community we need to look out for them.
We pray that our public health officials and scientist are able to contain COVID-19, but at the same time we must remember not only the physical health of our community, but the spiritual health as well. Communal gatherings are where we find solace and comfort with each other, and how we stay united. For now, they might still be the best (spiritual) medicine.