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Being alone, choosing life: Jewish practice in a plague

For Jews who practice even a modicum of tradition, social distancing is an unnatural act. Our tradition is predicated on the notion that no Jew should live alone on a desert island.

Consider the institution of a “minyan,” a quorum of ten adult Jews. One needs a minyan to enter a male child into the Covenant, name a newborn female child in synagogue, help a young person mark their transition from child to adult when they chant from the Torah, conduct a wedding or allow a mourner to recite the kaddish.

In other words, at every major milestone of our lives, our tradition mandates that one has to be surrounded by community. You could live as a hermit in some remote location, but when you want to mourn or to celebrate, you have to violate your isolation and find other Jews.

Deborah Lipstadt

Deborah Lipstadt Image by Emory University

In Pirkei Avot, Hillel speaks against the practice of some people to live in remote areas, like on the banks of the Dead Sea. By doing so, they sought to avoid temptations to sin; how could one engage in gossip, sexual misdeeds or commercial crimes if one was in a desert cave? No, said Hillel, “Do not separate yourself from the community.” In other words, be a Jew in the “marketplace,” and learn to overcome the temptations therein.

More than this, I suspect Hillel wanted us to lean in to the power of living in relationship with our communities.

There is the concept of Seudat Mitzvah, the meal that accompanies a major moment like a circumcision or wedding. Once again, we are being told, “Don’t celebrate alone. Be with others.” The Seudat Mitzvah’s counterpoint is the Seudat Havra-ah, the meal of comfort eaten by mourners upon returning from the funeral; though today it is often treated as a public condolence event, it actually should be a private meal. We demonstrate that our lives have been ruptured by not being in community. But even here, the notion of community is not absent: The community should provide the mourners’ food.

So now, in this moment where we are adjusting to life in the coronavirus crisis, a minyan is something to be avoided. But we observe the Torah’s teaching: “Therefore, above all, be most careful to protect your lives.” (Deut. 4:15)

But the Jewish community is also known for its resilience. Adaptation is woven into our long history.

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In Israel, ten Jews came out on their balconies so that one of them could say kaddish and the others could answer “Amen.” Many communities are using the internet. My synagogue said Kabbalat Shabbat together with everyone dressed in their Shabbat clothing.

Have a joint study session, a Jewish joke slam, or a kumsitz, a song session, with everyone sitting around their computer. Bring instruments. Arrange a viral bikur holim, visiting the sick. Gather the people with whom you kibbitz in shul. Have a Zoom session and kibbitz over some quality single malt scotch. Cholent optional.

Even as it breaks our hearts and feels unnatural to live as Jews alone, we must do so. It is not a matter of debate but of life and death. As the Torah instructs in an absolutely unqualified fashion: “Therefore choose life.” (Deut. 30:19)

This is one in a series of pieces on Passover during coronavirus. Read the rest of the series here.

Deborah E. Lipstadt is Dorot Professor of Holocaust History at Emory University and the author of ANTISEMITISM HERE AND NOW. She can be found on Twitter @DeborahLipstadt

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