I almost feel guilty for departing from my theme of the last two weeks about chinuch in the Modern Orthodox world. I continue to receive praise and criticism on my article, “Cancel Culture Comes to Orthodoxy.” I have received calls and emails from the most unexpected sources in both directions. Prominent figures in the Religious Zionist and MO chinuch world have encouraged me, while some in the more chareidi world have questioned me, particularly accusing me of promoting lashon ha’ra (libelous talk) about a group of Jews. I accept their admonition, much as I disagree with their contention.
However, I am very gratified that I opened the topic for discussion. If successful, my contact on this matter, whom I referred to in last week’s article, may succeed in getting this issue tackled on a national platform.
Another issue at hand is, in my opinion, of equally urgent importance. Last week, you may have seen a full-page ad in this paper decrying public ball-playing on Shabbos. Although I did agree to sign the ad along with almost every other rav in the community, there was language in the ad that I specifically asked not to have, but I do agree in general with the important principle of not playing ball in public on Shabbos. But that’s not the issue.
In conversation with one of the rabbanim who did not sign, he told me that a far more important issue is to get people to wear face masks in public to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. He asked if we could get the rabbinic leadership to sign on to such an ad. I told him I didn’t think we could, for reasons that are unfortunately too apparent.
Nonetheless, the issue is critical. Many people feel the virus is over. After all, how many reported cases of COVID-19 do we know of currently in our community? Therefore, the feeling is that there’s no need to “mask up.”
The issue is not about one’s self. The issue is about consideration of others. Perhaps you feel that it is no longer necessary to mask up because the virus, in your opinion, is behind us. But what about me? What about those with immunity issues? What about countless others who are justifiably concerned about contracting the virus? What about those over 65? What about those with no antibodies precisely because they were careful?
Even if you feel it is not necessary to mask outdoors, what about indoors? Rabbi Dr. Aaron Glatt, during his weekly Zoom address on Motza’ei Shabbos, was livid with those who deride others for wearing masks. It’s one thing, he said, not to feel you need a mask. But how dare anyone in an influential position encourage people not to wear masks!
I have heard, though I hope it’s not true, that a particular shul in Queens announced that, beginning with Rosh HaShanah, no masks will be required indoors in that shul.
Let me share with you an incident that shows how far-reaching the laxity in being careful can be. A person very familiar to me visited a particular community outside the New York area for a few days. That community was known to be, baruch Hashem, very safe because, from early on, they adhered to all the COVID-19 guidelines. During the course of the visit, the person met with a friend outdoors, for an extended period of time. They sat distanced, but wore no masks.
The day after, this visitor returned to New York. Upon returning, the visitor was informed that the friend – the very next day – had tested positive for COVID. Now the visitor is living in a two-week period of quarantine from the spouse, due to the spouse’s unrelated health issue.
How did the positive person contract the virus? It was easy to figure out. About a week before, he/she attended a wedding in another community that practices no distancing or mask rules. It turns out that, suddenly, about eight new cases popped up in the formerly safe community, all due to people who were at that same or other weddings in the not-protected community.
The result is, because one community chooses not to practice safe behavior, another community is affected, and a couple in our area has to suffer the consequences!
There are many lessons to be learned from this awful COVID experience. One of the most important lessons to be learned is: Don’t be selfish. It’s great to be pious about many religious practices, but the mitzvah of V’ahavta L’Rei’acha Kamocha (Vayikra 19:18) – Love your fellow man as yourself – is paramount. There is a reason why Rabbi Akiva famously stated, it is the great rule in the Torah (Talmud Yerushalmi, Nedarim 9:4).
So please don’t mask what Jews are really supposed to be about: loving and caring about others!
Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, Vice President of the Coalition for Jewish Values, former President of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, and the Rabbinic Consultant for the Queens Jewish Link.