We are rabbis and other Jewish religious leaders representing every movement of Judaism, who stand in support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio for using data-driven, geographically-based efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19. We condemn the lack of compliance with public health directives and recent violent reactions from some individuals within the Orthodox Jewish community to enforcement of those mandates.
During the cholera epidemic in the 1840’s, Reb Yisroel Salanter ate in shul on Yom Kippur to encourage his congregants to eat and protect their health. He did this because the highest value in Judaism is pikuach nefesh, the saving of human life.
Judaism and Jewish texts are filled with vociferous debates and disagreements, however nothing is more universally accepted and agreed upon than the need to protect and preserve human life and dignity. The Code of Jewish Law (Orach Chayim 328:2) teaches that one who even asks if it is permissible to save a life, by doing work on the shabbat, is a murderer. The Talmud, Jerusalem Yoma 41b, expresses disgust that this question could even be asked and places the blame on the local rabbi for not having made this teaching clear to everyone.
We are also deeply disturbed by what we have witnessed in the form of mask burnings and large, unsafe, and even violent protests against sensible precautions and regulations. We are embarrassed and disappointed that after thousands of years of clear tradition, and common sense, this letter needs to be written.
The posturing of religious freedom in opposition to the wellbeing of individuals and communities is blasphemy (Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Sabbath 2:3). As rabbinic leaders, we feel a religious responsibility for the safety of all people and the fidelity of our tradition. While our individual spiritual practices may differ widely, our commitment to observing them in safe ways is unified.
We therefore support thoughtful efforts by the governor and mayor to protect health and safety, including limiting religious gatherings in known “hot spots,” and using enforcement for any gatherings which violate size restrictions, or where people are not masked or socially distanced. We condemn the violence in Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) communities last night against mask-use and other safety measures, including violence and threats against members of the community who support safety measures.
Antisemitism against Orthodox Jews is serious and widespread, and we must ensure that the implementation of public health policies is both culturally appropriate (e.g., more Yiddish speaking contact tracers) and does not promote antisemitism either in its language or in its actions. But to be clear, requiring masking and social distancing for all gatherings, including religious gatherings, is not antisemitism.
View the list of signatories here.