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Navigating the Coronavirus: Jewish Values to Guide Institutions and Individuals Now

By Rabbi Mira Beth Wasserman, Ph.D.

Originally published in eJewish Philanthropy on June 2, 2020.

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In recent weeks, North American Jews have entered a new phase in our collective confrontation with the novel coronavirus. Even as the illness continues to spread and the death toll rises, pressures are mounting to return to work and to open markets and communal spaces. Whether we are leading organizations or trying to keep our loved ones safe, we now weigh the emotional and economic costs of staying home against the threat of a virus whose spread is stealthy and whose lethality is not fully understood. In the midst of all this uncertainty, one thing is clear: Life will not return to normal any time soon. How can the wisdom of Jewish tradition guide us as we adjust to a world where the shadow of illness hovers over every decision we make?

At the Center for Jewish Ethics, we have created Jewish Values and the Coronavirus, a guide to help frame values-based decision making in this time of pandemic. This web-based resource collects and curates sources from the Torah and rabbinic texts alongside insights from leading ethical thinkers from across the Jewish world and beyond. Seven units introduce core Jewish values: human dignity, safeguarding life, respecting elders, cultivating community, distributive justice, environmental stewardship and workers’ rights. Each unit includes foundational texts from the Jewish ethical tradition accompanied by introductions, commentary and questions for reflection and discussion. Jewish Values and the Coronavirus can be used for individual study, as a curricular resource or to equip communal leaders to ground their decisions in the relevant texts and concepts from the Jewish ethical tradition. Over the coming weeks and months, the guide will expand as our collective experience in living out our values in these unprecedented times continues to grow.

In recent months, Jewish leaders and organizations have shown remarkable clarity and consensus in putting pikuakh nefesh, the Jewish imperative to safeguard life, at the center of decision making. With broken hearts, leaders whose lives have been dedicated to building and strengthening Jewish community united in shutting down schools, synagogues, and camps. Now, as we face the prospect of an extended period of risk from the novel coronavirus, our decisions grow more complicated. Whether we are making decisions for ourselves, our families, our workplaces, or our communal organizations, we face an array of choices about how to carry on in the midst of danger that is diminished but has by no means disappeared. As we adapt to new circumstances in this time of uncertainty – and as we begin to look beyond this crisis – other Jewish teachings take their place alongside pikuakh nefesh.

At the start of this crisis, at every meeting I attended, the questions were the same: Do we need to cancel? Is it time to close down? It wasn’t long until government leaders decided for us. Two months ago, I naively imagined that opening things back up would be much like closing them down – that it would happen quickly and decisively. But now I understand: Living through this pandemic – for those of us lucky enough to evade illness ourselves – will mean a wide array of complicated decisions in every realm of life.

The questions of when to close and what to open have now given way to considerations of multiple scenarios and myriad contingencies. Already, restrictions imposed by government have relaxed in many places and we face decisions that stay-at-home orders rendered moot. As individuals and communities, we navigate a world that is far from open but lacks the clarity of being altogether closed. What is fair and reasonable to expect of the people we work with? As bills pile up, when is it appropriate to turn to others for help? With daycare now available, can we trust that our kids won’t bring the virus home to our elderly parents? For how long will congregants support a synagogue if they are not allowed to gather and not allowed to sing?

In this time of loss and uncertainty, Jewish ethical teachings offer grounding and guidance, illuminating the contours of our ethical responsibilities.

As you face difficult choices, I hope you will find our guide to Jewish values helpful. And I hope you will consider contributing to this growing collection of Jewish teachings for our time. Please send your suggestions for more resources, texts and values to jewishethics@rrc.edu. Together, may we deepen the wells of Jewish ethical wisdom.

Rabbi Mira Beth Wasserman, Ph.D., directs the Center for Jewish Ethics at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

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