Back in February, when Israel was gradually coming out of a third COVID-19 lockdown, some Israelis blamed the ultra-Orthodox for most of the rise in new cases. A February 1st article in the Times of Israel made a startling statistical claim, “Almost a quarter of all new Israeli coronavirus patients are from the ultra-Orthodox community, Health Ministry figures released Monday showed, highlighting the disastrous spread of COVID-19 through Haredi cities and neighborhoods.” [i]
The next day in the Times of Israel, an ultra-Orthodox journalist Israel Frey pointed out an important aspect about ultra-Orthodoxy today, “Torah and the commandments are the basis, but it’s not just about putting on tefillin and studying Talmud. Ultra-Orthodoxy in 2021 is about the energy of communal gatherings and celebrations: everyone being together. That is what sustains ultra-Orthodoxy – its entire basis is communal gatherings.” [ii]
To be clear, the purpose of this article is not to criticize the ultra-Orthodox. This is the furthest thing from my mind. Bear with me and this will become clear.
I remember the NBC News headlines in late March 2020 – “Pastor defies coronavirus order, draws over 1K people to services.” [iii] The article, which was concerned about church closures due to the pandemic, reported that Rev. Tony Spell of Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge boldly proclaimed that the pandemic is not a concern. “The virus, we believe, is politically motivated. We hold our religious rights dear and we are going to assemble no matter what someone says.”
So, what do the ultra-Orthodox and Rev. Tony Spell, as well as many other religious community leaders, have in common? They all have the firm conviction that for the health and continuance of their communities, it is absolutely necessary to continue to meet together for worship services and communal life-cycle events such as weddings, births, bar mitzvahs or funerals. They maintain that the communal nature of such gatherings cannot be fulfilled via a digital platform.
Two memorable passages in the Brit HaChadasha (New Testament) support their position. First, Luke, describing the practice of the nascent ecclesia, writes,
They were devoting themselves to the teaching of the emissaries and to fellowship, to breaking bread and to prayers… Day by day they continued with one mind, spending time at the Temple and breaking bread from house to house. They were sharing meals with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. (Acts 2:42 & 46-47) [iv]
According to Luke they continued daily with one mind. Each day they were building and maintaining the newly formed community of the Body of Messiah. A second passage is from the Letter to the Hebrews,
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good deeds. And do not neglect our own meetings, as is the habit of some, but encourage one another—and all the more so as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:24-25)
At that time, the Yeshua-believing community was firmly established, but apparently, for whatever reason, some people had stopped meeting together with the community. It is possible that persecution and the cares of life caused some to pull away, hence the admonition to “stir up one another to love and good deeds.” These are activities that cannot be accomplished alone. They require a communal setting.
Normally, gathering together is not only commendable but an absolute necessity for the health and growth of any community of faith, whether Yeshua-believing, ultra-Orthodox Jews, or any another. However, today we are dealing with a situation that quite possibly neither Luke nor the author of Hebrews ever considered – a global pandemic that has already caused the deaths of over three million people worldwide. My point is not to address the pros and cons of preventative measures such as masks, social distancing, and vaccinations. I simply point out that we have a biblical mandate (Romans 13:1-8 & 1 Peter 2:13-17) to obey those who are in authority over us, whether they be kings, presidents, prime ministers, or carry any other title. Of course, there is a higher mandate than obedience to those in worldly authority; Yeshua expressed this well when he was asked about the greatest commandment,
“You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The entire Torah and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. (Matthew 22:37-40 & Leviticus 19:18)
So where does that leave us now? Our havurah in Israel, like many other communities worldwide, has not met in person since March 2020. We have been learning to exist via the digital world: Zoom, email, phone calls, and such. Is relegating community to the digital world optimal? Absolutely not! But praise God we have such venues to continue community in an age with unique and severe contagious health issues.
Our congregation has a number of people in the high-risk category. Thus, physically gathering together could potentially endanger their lives! This would not be an act of loving them. In our current situation, we need to be creative and work diligently to maintain community while social distancing.
However, we must also judge the hearts and motives of others who feel differently. The ultra-Orthodox, Rev. Spell, and others, who choose to continue physically meeting as community despite the rules and regulations of governmental authorities, make the choices for their community and are held accountable. Consider Rav Shaul’s (Paul) admonition to the believers in Rome, “Let each be fully convinced in his own mind… For none of us lives for himself, and none dies for himself” (Romans 14:5, 7). We are responsible to care for one another, even though that may cause inconvenience for a season. If conditions were pre-pandemic normal, our faith communities should definitely meet together physically for worship and for life-cycle events.
However, until things return to some degree of normalcy, as best as our hearts and conscience allows, we should be obedient to those in authority for the common good, for the care of our neighbors, and most of all to honor HaShem in our obedience to the authority he established.
This article was written by MJTI Registrar Rabbi Michael Hillel. For more by Rabbi Hillel, read his articles about the value of procrastination or whether it’s possible to have Christmas without Hanukkah.
[iv] Unless otherwise noted, all readings from the Brit Chadashah are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.
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