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With the corona virus afoot, don’t be foolishly pious.

Judaism has never been a tradition that privileges meticulous religious devotion over self-care and personal health.

In a famous Mishna, Rabbi Joshua states that a “foolish man of piety”, or hasid shoteh, causes the world to be destroyed. While the Talmud gives the specific definition of a man who refuses to save a drowning woman because she was dressed immodestly, the classification has been used in widespread halakhic literature – especially in cases where a “mitzvah” comes at a potential for loss of life.

In fact, if one is performing a mitzvah at a potential medical cost to themselves or others, it actually ceases to be a mitzvah. We are obligated to break Shabbat if there is a chance that a person’s life is on the line. If a person is ill, it actually becomes a mitzvah for them to eat on Yom Kippur and a sin to continue fasting. Of a person in this category, some suggest that if a person continues to fast and subsequently dies, “it is as if they took their own life.”

It’s no secret that the coronavirus is disrupting daily life. Schools are closing, offices are switching to work from home policies, and large events are banned across multiple states. Sadly, the Jewish community in America has seemingly been disproportionately affected by the pandemic sending shockwaves through Jewish institutions. As early as last week, my own Hillel has made the decision to cancel all in-person events and attempted to gravitate towards an online presence.


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Yet not all are heeding the danger.

Large Purim parties were ubiquitous this past week, plenty of synagogues are continuing services as usual, and large Shabbat dinners with strangers are planned for Friday night. With tens of thousands of Jews heading to large daily or weekly gatherings we must be quick to get the word out that this is unreasonable. I have even been seeing, with alarming frequency, posts on social media relating that Hashem runs the world and therefore Jewish events and services will proceed as normal.

This is a perfect descriptor of a hasid shoteh.

On Thursday the chief Rabbi of Israel, Israel Meir Lau, came out with a statement saying that all guidelines of the Israeli Health Ministry are halakhically binding. We should applaud statements like this that are both obvious from a Jewish legal standpoint but sadly often sociologically ignored to a extreme detriment.

Yes, maybe this is all overblown. I hope that in a month’s time we all look back and laugh at our over abundance of caution and widespread alarmism. I will gladly welcome the media reports, social media postings, and “I told you so’s” from many of the naysayers scoffing at these societal changes and precautions.

I’m not a doctor or health professional – but as a rabbi who has spent years pouring over Jewish texts, one thing is clear.

In a tradition that greatly values expertise and medical opinion, you are not being a good Jew by risking your life or the life of other, more vulnerable members of the community, to continue your Jewish ritualistic observance. You are being reckless, selfish, and foolishly pious. Stay home from synagogue or Jewish functions if that’s what doctors or health professionals in your area advise. I promise that God will understand that a whole lot more than you having to explain why your Minyan attendance was worth the death of somebody’s grandparent.

Moshe Daniel Levine is the Senior Jewish Educator at OC Hillel and a Jewish blogger. He can be reached at dlevine21@gmail.com.

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