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What a haircut taught me about rebuke, rights and responsibilities regarding the coronavirus vaccine

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I got my haircut this week. This is not exactly column-worthy news (though it does look fabulous!). But something happened in the salon that got me thinking about Moses, the art of persuasion, empathy and the tension between our core American principle of safeguarding individual rights and our Jewish notions about communal responsibility.

A couple of days before my Monday appointment, the salon sent a text saying it was still requiring face masks, so I stuck one in my pocket. I’d been wearing them less and less: both the QuickChek around the corner and the place I regularly meet a friend for outdoor iced coffees had just switched to “vaccinated customers need not wear masks.”

So I started my salon-small talk by asking both the woman who washed my hair and the one preparing to cut it if they were eager for the salon to change its policies so they could work mask-free.

“Well, I’ll be wearing my mask for awhile,” said my hairdresser, who I adore and have been going to for about five years, “because I’m unvaccinated.”

She had not yet snipped a lock, and I thought for a second about getting up and walking out. I asked why she was not vaccinated. “Too soon,” she said. “I’m afraid of the long-term effects.” I asked if a lot of people had tried to convince her to get vaccinated, and she said “yup.”

And then I said …  nothing. After a bit, I asked about the bathroom renovations she mentioned last time.

A man cuts a woman's hair, masked.

Image by iStock

But I couldn’t stop thinking about the encounter all week. Should I have tried to persuade her — and if so, how? Complained to the salon owner about allowing unvaccinated workers? Should I boycott the place? Rant about it on Facebook? Write about it in my weekly column? Or, you know, mind my own business?

Just two days before the haircut, I’d celebrated the bat mitzvah of a close friend, Sophie Jacobs, whose d’var Torah addressed this very dilemma. Jumping off the story of Moses bringing forth water from the rock to appease Israelites angry about being stuck in the desert and fearful about the future, Sophie talked about engaging the vaccine-skeptical.

“When we want to convince people of something, facts and evidence are important,” she said. “It is important to be clear and direct and to present your counter-argument with careful thought that also speaks to the emotions people are feeling.”

Our rabbi, Marc Katz, expanded on this in his response, focusing on the importance of acknowledging people’s fear, and meeting them where they are.

He told a Hasidic story about a king whose son thought he was a rooster and insisted on taking off his clothes and eating crumbs under the table. Several sages fail to convince the boy he is not a rooster, until one decides to join him, clothesless, under the table, pecking away at the crumbs, accepting him as a rooster, and ultimately persuading him that he can remain a rooster but sit at the table in prince’s robes.

I called Rabbi Katz to ask what I should do about the hairdresser. He reminded me that we call Moses our teacher, not a prophet.

“All a prophet has to do is speak the truth, say God’s words accurately — it doesn’t matter if people listen to him,” he told me. “A teacher has to speak in such a way to move the people. If you rebuke this woman and just tell her things, but not in a way she can hear it, then you’re not going to actually move her. She’s not going to do anything about it.”

That made a lot of sense to me, and fit with my broader philosophy of not dismissing people with different political views, instead trying to respect those differences and seek to understand what formed them.

But I was also wondering about whether I had an obligation to engage the hairdresser, to try and move her, given that our most important tool in fighting this global pandemic, herd immunity, is about our collective responsibility to protect each other and the broader public. Rabbi Katz responded by saying that “Judaism is counter-cultural.”

“The right to choose whether you get vaccinated or not is an incredibly American way of looking at things,” he explained. “Jews don’t talk about rights, they talk about duties. If everybody does their duty, that makes the world better. It’s a completely different paradigm than the American  paradigm. 

“Individual rights are not the building blocks of Judaism, duty to your fellow human being is the building block of Judaism,” he continued. “If you want to get Judaism right, there are certain times you have to suck it up and do things you don’t want to do.”

I called a couple of other rabbis to get their take. Jill Jacobs, a Conservative rabbi who heads the human-rights group Tru’ah, also talked about the concept of “rebuke,” and explained the biblical version, tochechah.

She noted that we’re only supposed to rebuke someone “when it can be heard” and that “you don’t want to move into embarrassing somebody in public.” (That’s why I’m not naming the hairdresser or the salon.) The concept is rooted in the idea that we’re part of a community with shared values, shared standards — which is, of course, increasingly elusive in our polarized world.

“Are you saying something because you’re worried about her health, and are you seeing it as actually stepping into a life-saving situation?” Rabbi Jacobs asked. If she were choking, there’d be no question, in a Judaic framework, that I had an obligation to step in to save her life. But she had said she’d continue wearing her mask, so she was not at high risk; I’m vaccinated, so my own health is not at risk. We’re getting closer and closer to herd immunity every day.

“Presumably everything you would say, other people have already likely said to her,” she added. “I think it’s really about what do I hope to accomplish in this conversation, and is it possible to accomplish that thing in this situation.”

Hair salon requires masks

Courtesy of Getty

Pulpit rabbis like Katz, who heads our Reform Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, N.J.,  and Rabbi Benji Samuels, of the Orthodox Congregation Shaarei Tefilah in Newton, Mass., where I grew up, are dealing with this balancing act in real time as they reopen for in-person prayer, learning and social programs. So is every CEO writing new guidelines for their workplaces.

Can we require vaccines to enter public space? What should the sign say about who should wear masks when? How to balance the rights of the vaccine skeptic against the rights of the vaccinated? How to address everyone’s palpable, reasonable fears? I mean, my hairdresser is right — nobody yet knows the long-term effects of this vaccine. 

Rabbi Samuels pointed out that tochechah is part of “a four-mitzvah package” outlined in Leviticus, chapter 19: don’t take revenge; rebuke someone who has done you wrong; love your neighbor as you love yourself; and don’t hold a grudge. “They’re all taken together,” he said. “Nobody knows how to rebuke effectively, and every time you try, it backfires. As a practical strategy, graciousness and generosity is ultimately going to win the day.”

I tried to apply the four-mitzvah package to the hairdresser dilemma. Don’t hold a grudge and don’t take revenge means no boycott (which is a relief, because she’s really good). Rebuke but only when the person can be receptive, and in a way that you would want done to you.

Maybe saying nothing was my only Jewish option.

Your Turn

Two days after my haircut, another text came from the salon: it’s going “mask-optional” next week. It promised to remain “a COVID-vaccine judgment-free space,” adding: “Some of you and some of our team will continue to wear masks for various reasons, and we do not want this to be a part of the conversation.”

I’d love to hear how these conversations are playing out in your lives. Have you tried to persuade a skeptic to get vaccinated? Boycotted someone who won’t? Are you unvaccinated and facing social pressure?

Share your vaccine-related dilemmas via email: [email protected], subject line, “Vaccine dilemmas.”

News from the Newsroom

The Forward  won an astounding 34 Rockower Awards from the American Jewish Press Association Thursday night, including 16 first prizes in categories including investigations, commentary, news, arts, sports, photography, multimedia and obituaries. Kudos to our talented journalists, who met the incredible challenges of 2020’s intense news cycle with strength, facts, creativity and heart. Links to a few of the award-winning stories are below, with comments from the Rockower judges. 

Rob Eshman’s “Advice to the second gentleman from a veteran male rebbetzin” took top honors for single commentary. The column “stood out because of the writer’s rare perspective and voice,” the judges wrote. 

Aiden Pink, who left the Forward last summer to go to rabbinical school, took first and second prize in investigations/enterprise, for packages about U.S. pro-Israel groups failing to report funding from the Israeli government, and U.S. colleges failing to report antisemitic incidents as hate crimes. 

“It is impossible not to fall in love,” the judges wrote of our 90-year-old lox columnist, Len Berk, whose debut piece about getting fired from Zabar’s at the onset of the pandemic won the personal essay prize. “In this charming, witty, and poignant essay, Berk meditates on the meaning of work and the importance of finding a purpose in life, especially at his advanced age. It’s nice to see that this former accountant and lox slicer has now found a third career as a wonderful writer.”

Another alum, Ari Feldman, took first and second place in the news category, for scoops about Brandeis University Press’s dispute with a historian of Black-Jewish relations, and about a campaign in Hasidic Brooklyn to urge healthy people to get COVID tests in hopes of bringing down neighborhood positivity rates.  “Exquisitely written story on a controversial topic in contemporary discourse on American Jews: the disputed role of whiteness,” the judges said of the first piece. On the second, they highlighted the Forward’s unique advantage in covering Hasidic communities, calling it “an inspired decision to translate Yiddish fliers.”

Louis Keene, a former freelancer who we recently hired as a staff writer, took top honors in writing on Black-Jewish relations for his deep dive into the role gentrification and police actions had played in the racial makeup of his own Los Angeles neighborhood.

“Max’s life may have been ordinary, but it was also fascinating,” the judges wrote in awarding Irene Katz Connelly first prize in obituaries for her eulogy for the 105-year-old father of our own vice president of finance and operations, Alan Bendich.

Molly Boigon took the multimedia prize for her visual guide through New York City’s COVID data. “Good use of data and clear explanation of where the data fell short,” the judges wrote, “an important point which many outlets fail to explain.” 

The wonderful, horrible afterlife of Leni Reifenstahl,” by Talya Zax, took first prize in arts reporting. And PJ Grisar’s profile of a Minneapolis artist whose studio was destroyed by fire during the protests following George Floyd’s murder won in the “writing about seniors” category. That artist, Aribert Munzner, was inspiringly sanguine about what he lost, saying, “I’m now in my 90th year, ready to start all over again.” 

That’s how it works in the news biz, too. We’re not pausing to celebrate these awards, but working to do excellent journalism all over again every day.

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