Facebook Post by Rabbi Perlin in the Time of Coronavirus (5/18/2020)

Monday Post 5.18.20:  No Exemption in God’s Name, Please!

by Rabbi Amy R. Perlin, D.D.

On Saturday, when many Jews were appropriately observing a socially-distanced Shabbat, a federal judge in North Carolina blocked the restrictions that the governor had placed on indoor religious services during the coronavirus pandemic.  Once again, I find myself outraged by religious extremists, who feel that they can endanger the public in the name of religious exception, and the courts that empower them.  As a rabbi and community leader for four decades I must speak out. And as a loyal American, I can hear our founding fathers screaming from their graves that the “separation of church and state” they envisioned did not include granting the right for religious institutions to endanger their parishioners or the public.

When most religious institutions are proceeding with great caution, and abiding concern for their elderly and vulnerable populations, I object to those who would use the courts or disobey state and local leaders to push for premature reopening of indoor prayer and activities. We have seen whole church choirs come down with the virus in Europe and pastors right here in Virginia and Maryland become gravely ill or die, as a result of this devastating pandemic.

This is not about the science alone.  This is about the use of religious particularism and exemptions in God’s name.  I know congregations, like businesses, are hurting financially, and concede that many are hurting spiritually by the inability to gather indoors and conduct services as usual.  But, I do not believe that gives them the right to endanger those they have a sacred obligation to protect, and the rest of us who would come in contact with them.

Every religious leader should lead guided by their tradition’s values and common sense, with regard for the spiritual, emotional, AND PHYSICAL well-being of those they serve.  We have all faced situations where multiple values apply to a given situation.  Deuteronomy 30:19 speaks to me:  “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse —choose life…!”  Jewish tradition teaches us that BOTH “choice” and “life” is important in this command.  In a pandemic, where the death count across this globe is increasing every single day, believer and atheist must acknowledge that the choices we make today and tomorrow are literally life and death choices.

In God’s infinite universe, 300 or 600 days are just a fleeting moment in human history.  For us, kept from the things we want most, each day feels like an eternity.  For now, it is wiser and safer not to gather large groups for indoor worship. What should we do?  We should keep those houses of worship open financially to make sure that they are there,  staff and building, ever strong,  when we can open them safely once again.