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Amid COVID-19, a powerful lesson about inwardness

The last two weeks have thrust us all into a frightening new reality. Coronavirus, COVID-19, has flooded our lives , upending routines, exposing the fragilities – and regular imbecilities – of our social, economic and especially political structures, challenging us to rethink how to relive our lives, so that we can go on, literally, living our lives. The tool we are most being urged to use is the creation of spaces between people known as social distancing; it’s a new world, built on paradox – humans, social animals to our core, must now survive by a kind of deliberate a-sociality, forswearing the endless moments of contact that kinit society together: “No hugs, no handshakes.”

The logistical challenges of social distancing are mind-boggling enough, but the moral and spiritual challenges are piercing too. It’s all so separating,, alienating and severe – where in all this is the good?

The good is still there – in targeted philanthropic efforts, the technical workarounds we are creating (like livestream Kabbalat Shaabbat and Torah classes) – and in our minds and hearts. And I suggest that we think of these practices now forced upon us in terms of two key Jewish, and human values: Tsniut and solidarity.

Tsniut, modeesty, has in recent decades, and especially in response to the 1960’s sexual revolutions, taken on the meaning of sexual modesty, and regularly been taken to extremes of gender segregation in public, and the policing of women’s bodies by disciplining sleeve lengths and hemlines. Which is all the more tragic, since at its root it is a beautiful idea, of humility, inwardness – as an ethical relationship, for the sake of others.

The prophet Micah (6:8) said: You have been told, O human, what is good, and what your God the Eternal seeks from you, but to do justice, love kindness mercy and walk humbly with your God.

We know, in our bones, the basics of human goodness –keeping the lines of right and wrong that we call justice, freeing our wells of compassion for one another we call kindness, and doing so in steady awareness of our limitations, before one another and God – and that knowledge of our limitation is what frees us truly do for others the best justice and kindness we can.

My wife, Tamar Biala, in her study of tsniut education in Israeli schools (and the repressive extremes to which it has regularly led) To ‘Teach Tsniut with Tsniut’ has offered a new understanding of tsniut – as an ethical relationship of mutuality, The message of tsniut is:“I check a part of myself not to erase myself, but in order to enable you to be present, and flourish. And you check a part of yourself, not to self-erase, but so that I too can be present.”

Tsniut makes possible the space for the meeting of I and Thou, of me and you. Without that space, we cancel one another out and none of us can live. Yet if there is nothing between us but empty space, we can’t live either.

Configuring, tracing, and retracing that space between us, so that across its clearing we can enable one another to live, is something we do every day. And COVID-19 is forcing us to think harder about doing it in a globalized world, in which it is precisely our deep interconnectedness in time and space that is bringing new threat and danger.

Tsniut in the time of COVID-19 invites us to think anew about solidarity. Today, and for the near future, coming together brings death — and staying apart saves life.

Crucially, this parting, for now, saves the lives of people we don’t know and will never know. This will be very, very hard to do. All of us will have to choose, struggle, and make peace, in ways we haven’t before. And the empty spaces we create will be the new arenas for the ties that bind us together, as we each take responsibility for ourselves, and for all.

In the teachings of the Kabbalah, the very first act of God’s creation was tsimtsum, the willful receding of an infinite God in order to make possible the creation of a finite other, to make possible a kind of existence different from His own.

We now know as never before in our lifetimes that all life depends on me, you, us, stepping back to make possible lives and existences different from our own. Social distancing is a quiet life-giving kind of solidarity, taking a step back to literally give breathing space to others, people you don’t know and will never meet, but whose lives depend on you.

It’s something COVID-19 in all its cruelty is teaching us. And we’d all better learn it soon.

Yehudah Mirsky is Professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis and author of Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution. He tweets @YehudahMirsky.

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