Rabbi Bauman’s OpEd in the Advocate. 3.14.2020

The novel coronavirus is here in metro New Orleans. The number of people testing positive is growing exponentially. Without widespread testing, it is impossible to know the exact numbers of people who are infected.

With a lengthy incubation period and varying symptoms among those infected, people who have no intention of spreading the virus do so anyway. This reality demands a response from all of us, especially those who gather people, and chief among them are religious leaders.

That is why, on March 11, Touro Synagogue, the oldest Jewish congregation in the country outside the original 13 colonies, made the difficult decision to suspend all congregational events including, most painfully, Sabbath services.

We cherish our institution’s role as a shelter for people to seek closeness to one another, their religious tradition, and the Divine. We believe these are among the most important human experiences. We also understand that, were we to gather, there is a near surety that COVID-19 will spread among those who came to share love and prayer, endangering everyone present, everyone they might later encounter, and the staff who made such a gathering possible.

The ancient rabbis of the early Common Era wisely anticipated times when religious observance would conflict with other important priorities, and they addressed it directly. Nearly 2,000 years ago, they wrote, “Potential danger to human life overrides the Sabbath.” (Mishnah Yoma 8:6). This declaration comes at the end of a discussion about caring for those with medical ailments, the treatment of which might interfere with religious observance. This teaching and later ones that echo it clarify that though observance of the Sabbath, and by extension other sacred obligations, is extremely important, the possibility of saving human life takes precedence.

If we accept that saving human life is fundamental, then the question put before us as people of faith and conscience is whether we accept that gathering in large numbers for religious reasons is a risk to human life. To answer this question, we need only look to Italy which is, in this very moment, in the throes of a crisis. Hospitals are overloaded, running out of beds and ventilators, and an endangered and exhausted medical staff is being forced to decide who will live and who will die because resources are so scarce. Italy has shown us that the spread of this virus can overwhelm a health care system with too much need at one time, and when that happens, lives are at risk.

This is a moment when we feel vulnerable and desperately in need of the healing balm of prayer and communion with God and with one another. When we are afraid, we want companionship and reassurance, want to know that our eternal truths and sacred practices are still there. It is upon us as religious leaders to honor that need by creatively revisioning prayer and empowering our congregants and to do the same. Social distancing, even in its most dramatic form, need not eclipse or impede spiritual closeness.

But our first step must be to cease gathering. As Dr. Martin Luther King, one of the greatest humanitarians of our world, wisely said, “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase. Just take the first step.”

Suspending religious gatherings is a gesture of love for those we lead and work with, and it is also a leap of faith that the next step will be revealed to us.