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‘Save a single life, save an entire world:’ Faith leaders must stop fighting COVID restrictions

After a year marked by loss — of loved ones, community, a sense of normalcy — it takes no stretch of the imagination to understand why people of faith across the country yearn to return to houses of worship.

I am among them. A Zoom call can never replace the experience of being in the physical presence of other people.

But central to faith traditions is an obligation to uphold the sanctity of life, and by doing so, to care for one another. And it’s profoundly distressing to hear some of my fellow faith leaders calling for restrictions designed to slow the spread of this virus to include exemptions for religious purposes. They are needlessly endangering their congregants and themselves, and defying one of the tenets that defines our work.

The facts are indisputable. The COVID-19 pandemic is a public health crisis unparalleled in the last century, with cases across the country still dangerously high after 11 long months of quarantine and isolation. Even as vaccination efforts suggest there is a light at the end of the tunnel, thousands of Americans are dying every day. The total American death toll exceeded 500,000 people on Monday. There’s no question that complying with public health guidelines will save lives, especially the lives of the most vulnerable.

Since the start of the pandemic, we have seen weddings, funerals and even holiday gatherings quickly become super spreader events for the virus. It is abundantly clear that the coronavirus does not distinguish one type of meeting from another: It acknowledges no religious exemption.

We know that public health measures have been instrumental in limiting the spread of COVID-19. And we know equally that every in-person event — regardless of the circumstance — creates opportunities for the illness to spread, not only among attendees but also all those with whom they come in contact. Not everyone who attends large gatherings will get sick. Not all those who get sick will die. But to ignore what we know about this virus in order to hold dangerous in-person worship services is to scatter death on the wind, as if not knowing where it will land makes the grief and suffering any less real.

Jewish tradition argues, as does that of Islam, that whoever destroys a single life destroys an entire world, yet whoever saves a single life saves an entire world.

Members of the religious right — and their sympathizers on the Supreme Court — have likened any restrictions on a house of worship’s in-person operations to persecution. That’s simply not true. Our constitution rightly protects the ability of each person to practice their religion as they see fit. But that freedom is not and never has been one that permits people of faith to flout generally applicable laws. Houses of worship cannot be allowed to ignore public health restrictions any more than priests, rabbis and imams can be allowed to ignore traffic lights because they’re late for services.

Most people understand this intuitively. Yes, some vocal religious leaders have complained loudly and litigated aggressively in demanding a special license to ignore restrictions designed to protect public health. But the overwhelming majority of clergy in our country have worked relentlessly to find creative and meaningful ways to reach through a screen and into people’s hearts.

None of us pretend that praying apart is at all the same as praying together. I understand the widespread sense of insult when political leaders label worship as “non-essential,” even as liquor stores, casinos and film production seem to share privileged status alongside groceries and hospitals.

But the response of religious leadership should not be to wade into the muck of “me first” bickering. Instead, faith organizations should raise their prophetic voices to prioritize public health and set the example of true responsibility and leadership.

For many years, I instructed my congregation that the essential requirement to fast for the 25 hours of Yom Kippur exempted people with health restrictions. Diabetics, hypoglycemics, individuals reliant on medications, even those pregnant or nursing were in fact required by Jewish ritual to take necessary nourishment to maintain their health. Like many other rabbis, I would relate the story of Rabbi Israel Salanter, the 19th-century sage who ate and drank before his congregation on that sacred day during a cholera epidemic to persuade them to follow the best medical advice of the moment. Never did I imagine I would find myself in parallel circumstances.

Yet, here we are, mandated to fulfill the Biblical command to follow divine instructions “and live by them” — not die by them.

Rabbi Jack Moline is president of the Interfaith Alliance. He is also Rabbi Emeritus of Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria, Virginia, and serves as an adjunct faculty member of the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Virginia Theological Seminary.

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