If you were an alien descending on the UK this week, you may not have worked out that we were in the grip of a pandemic. Instead, you may of thought that Durham was the capital of the UK and that Dominic Cummins was either the angel or the devil!
I certainly do not want to comment on the rights and wrongs of the situation, however, while listening to his press conference in the gardens of Number 10, I couldn’t help but sympathise with him as a religious Jew.
Let me explain.
The whole issue is to do with ‘Hilchot Lockdown.’
When he was asked why he broke the ‘halacha’ he argued that he had not, he answered
‘I knew what the guidance was, it talks about exceptional circumstances with small children
and I think that in all the circumstances I behaved reasonably.’
Immediately I thought of Hilchot Shabbat. We all fully understand that Shemirat Shabbat is critical, and that we would be shocked if any Rabbi or religious Jew was seen to be publicly breaking Shabbat. However, we also know that there can be exceptional circumstances that would allow us to ‘break’ Shabbat. In most cases we need to ask a Rav, but sometimes, especially when an emergency happens we have to decide for ourselves, and we are certainly advised to err massively on the side of caution with any major issues of health.
Dominic Cummins was saying similarly – that he didn’t ‘break’ lockdown, there was an exception in the ‘halachot of lockdown’!
Aside from the Cummings incident, I am seeing multiple ways where the halachic way of life is starting to be explained and understood.
‘At all times, you should continue to observe social distancing guidelines when you are outside your home, including ensuring you are 2 metres away from anyone outside your household.’
Why do we need to stay 2 metres away? The idea is that droplets that are produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes may land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby, or possibly be inhaled into their lungs.
Surely people will say that this will only be a problem IF the person has the disease and IF the person sneezes or coughs when within 2 metres of you and IF you are facing them and IF it gets into your mouth or nose!
That is correct, the 2 metre rule is a ‘gzeira’ or a ‘chumrah’ – a stringency or a way of erecting fences that will make sure we never are in a position to catch the virus.
So much of Halachic literature is filled with these ideas, as Pirkei Avot instructs us ‘The Men of the Great Assembly said three things: Be patient in [the administration of] justice, raise many disciples and make a fence round the Torah.’ (Pirkei Avot 1:1)
We understand these ideas in concepts in the laws of Muktzeh on Shabbat or certainly in areas of potential physical danger and in many other areas of Halacha.
And now we come to Shavout.
Shavout is zman matan toratenu – the chag that we celebrate the anniversary of the occasion of the greatest event in history – Hashem revealing His eternal guide to life to the Jewish people and the world. The observance and connection to Torah has been the hallmark of our people from the very beginning, and it is clear that without it we eventually disappear.
There are so many examples in history where factions or individuals broke away from the Mesorah to unfortunately eventual destruction on a spiritual level.
When we look at the last 30 or 40 years in the diaspora we have seen a sharp rise in assimilation from individuals and groups who have abandoned the mesorah and Orthodoxy in favour of a more liberal interpretation.
The Jewish nation, ever since the ghetto walls came down have faced a challenge. Once we were allowed full participation in the modern world, we had a decision to make – engage and risk ‘infection’ from the values and ideology’s that may be antithetical to Torah or ‘isolate’ and not risk exposure – preserving our values but potentially damaging our ability to be economically viable without the requisite training from the outside world.
Of course, the decision is not so black and white, there is and has been a tremendous amount we have gained with our engagement with the modern world, however there is no question that the ‘isolation’ model is more successful in terms of the percentage assimilation rate.
There may be some differences of opinion of how and if Yiddishkeit can survive in the modern world between myself and the Chasid in Williamsburg – but we both fundamentally agree on the centrality of Torah observance wherever or whenever we find ourselves.
The growth of all Orthodox Judaism is testament to that.
Shavout comes to remind us of the centrality of Torah, the guidebook to our lives. As we continue to currently live lives guided by government directives written to keep us safe, we should realise we are blessed to always live lives guided by the Torah’s directives written to allow us to live a meaningful life, preserve and grow Judaism and be a light to the Nations.
So as you sit down tonight to bring in Yom Tov, be thankful that even in lockdown we can celebrate the anniversary of the event 3332 years ago, that bequeathed to us by Hashem a gift that has kept our nation together ever since that day.
The story of a remarkable people is also the story of a remarkable book, a remarkable way of life and a remarkable ability to understand the human condition.
Ki Heim Chayyenu v Orach Yamenu – For it is our life and lengths of days and we will meditate on it day and night.’