The coronavirus pandemic has affected people and industries in so many different ways. Some have lost their jobs; others continue to work but are on the front lines coming in contact with other people, while some are able to work from home. Some industries, such as those that offer streaming services, are thriving, while others, such as airlines, are in deep trouble.
Religious communities depend on human contact, and so we have struggled to figure out ways to connect without being physically present. This is a major challenge in Judaism where so many of our important rituals require the presence of 10 people. Without the quorum necessary for a minyan, we cannot read Torah or say certain prayers, while we at Adath Israel follow the Conservative movement ruling that allows the recitation of the Mourners Kaddish in the presence of 10 virtual attendees.
Not all Jewish communities follow these guidelines however. For the Orthodox, a gathering of 10 on Zoom is not sufficient to say Kaddish, and some communities have used other means to gather for prayer, such as holding services outside with people staying at least 6 feet apart. This Tuesday, some members of the Satmar sect held a funeral procession in Brooklyn for a rabbi that attracted thousands of mourners, and the attention of the mayor and the press.
Mayor Bill de Blasio and police commissioner Dermot Shea criticized the Satmar community for violating social distancing measures, but it turns out that the NYPD had participated in the planning for the procession. The Hasidic organizers didn’t consider the funeral an act of civil disobedience; rather, they thought they were following guidelines and since people are allowed to walk on the street with masks, they could hold a funeral there as well.
Clearly there was a breakdown in communication, both on the part of the Satmar and the NYPD because thousands of people showed up and police ended up dispersing the crowd. Some fear that de Blasio’s negative comments could lead to anti-Semitism as people blame the Jews for the spread of coronavirus because they refuse to follow the rules, even if, in this case, they coordinated the funeral with the authorities.
In Judaism we are constantly balancing different values and trying to resolve the tension between them. On the one hand, a funeral is one of the most sacred mitzvot we have. In Hebrew it is called a levayah, literally an escort since we accompany the body on the way to the grave. On the other hand, pikuach nefesh, the saving of lives, supersedes any mitzvah. In a time of social distancing we have to look for other ways to fulfill our obligations. For example, at some funerals people can escort the deceased by staying in their cars as the maximum 10 people participate in the funeral at the graveside.
Religion and social distancing are sure to come in conflict again as long as there is no vaccine for the coronavirus. Already the Justice Department has issued a statement saying that jurisdictions may not single out religious institutions in their orders. For example, a state or city cannot allow movie theaters to open but keep churches and synagogues closed. There must be one standard for all. It is up to government and faith to work together so that everyone is safe, but also able to observe their religion in meaningful ways.