Orthodox Jews must listen to the politicians. Jewish law commands it.
In an iconic remark attributed to him, Jesus famously said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21) Jesus was avoiding a trap set by the Pharisees seeking to persuade Pilate that Jesus opposed Caesar’s imposition of taxes. With his clever retort, Jesus effectively denied what the Pharisees were alleging. Nonetheless, the implications of his comment were far greater concerning the overall relationship between Christianity, secular government and society, his point being that religious law must sometimes yield to secular authority when the two are in conflict.
Judaism has similarly been challenged by secular governance, beginning long before the time of Jesus. In dealing with the issue, Judaism articulated it somewhat differently, first in the words of the Prophet Jeremiah in his letter to the Babylonian exiles: “Seek the peace of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in the peace thereof you shall have peace.” (Jeremiah 29:7)
Later, when secular governance became a continuing and often harsher problem, rabbinic authorities articulated a broader principle known as dina d’malkhuta dina: “the Law of the Land is the Law.” What the rabbis meant was that so long as the civil government enacting a law is legitimate, and so long as the law doesn’t contravene Jewish tradition, then from the perspective of the Jewish authorities, that law applies equally to Jews. Civil authority must be followed, the rabbis insisted.
Today, it seems obvious that the rule of dina d’malkhuta dina should apply to how religious Jews think about the government’s ordinances with regards to the global pandemic health crisis. It seems obvious that the authority of the secular authorities must hold sway.
It should be obvious, but it’s not.
Right now, an uptick in COVID-19 cases is plaguing New York City, which had thought it was done with the scourge. And when you look at the hotspots, most (although certainly not all) include Orthodox communities. One has a seven day average positive percentage of 18%. 18%!
How did this happen? It’s not clear exactly, though photos of massive gatherings with no social distancing and no masks seem like evidence that the government’s clear directions for keeping COVID at bay — things like masks and limited social and religious gatherings — have been largely ignored. Some Orthodox Jewish communities have simply flouted the lawful authority of the secular government.
Ignoring these ordinances is not just stupid, and dangerous; it is a clear violation of Jewish law — of dina d’malkhuta dina.
Some have hesitated to call out this behavior, for fear of being accused of antisemitism, or of being “self-hating Jews” who risk promoting anti-Semitism by blaming “our own” for a meteoric spread of the virus at least in some communities. And it’s true that there have been instances of antisemitism following the crackdown on these communities.
But at this point, calling out these Orthodox communities for their recklessness is no worse, no more dangerous, than calling out President Trump for his reckless behavior, which not only endangered others but landed him in the hospital with COVID.
This is not about condemning rabbis for having allowed — perhaps even encouraged — mass gatherings for religious services, weddings or funerals when they were totally unnecessary religiously. It’s about calling out anyone who hasn’t done his or her part to stop the spread, no matter how lofty or lowly their position in American society.
The Jewish people, particularly those in observant communities, are a communal people, and that’s a good thing. Still, mass communal gatherings of that sort, while arguably ideal and religiously significant in healthy times, simply aren’t required by religious law — either by the Torah itself or by subsequent religious texts.
So when, in a manner that doesn’t discriminate against Jewish communities, a public official issues an executive order or the legislature passes a statute that limits the number of individuals who may attend a religious event, the religious leader or the politician should abide by it. (So should the President.) And if the public official, particularly if based on the considered advice of experienced and qualified physicians and epidemiologists, demands mask wearing and social distancing, both the religious leader and politician should abide by it and direct compliance to their followers.
Remember that we are a people who believe in Arevut. We need to take responsibility for one another, particularly when others are potentially endangering themselves and their loved ones.
And after all, the Law of the Land is the Law. And who can honestly disagree with that?
Joel Cohen practices law at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, LLP in New York City, and is the author (with Dale J. Degenshein) of “Broken Scales: Reflections On Injustice.”