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The Missing Progressive Jewish Response

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During the pandemic most religious institutions, across all faiths, have failed to advocate for their own value and rather have subsumed themselves fully to the lockdown ideology, often imposing restrictions even longer and harder than that which is recommended by public health authorities. 

Much has been written about the harms of lockdowns, their failures as a public health approach, and their associated totalitarian impulse. Certainly it seems that whichever framework is applied, whether it be left, right, socialist, Marxist, or Libertarian, the logic of the lockdowns collapses and their cruelty is exposed, including their devastating impacts on worsening inequalities of all types. 

I would like to offer a progressive Jewish framework to expose the dangers of lockdown thinking. The progressive Jewish world has wholeheartedly embraced lockdown ideology, with almost no dissenting voices.

This is the dvar Torah [sermon] that I would like to give, but is very unlikely to be articulated in any Reform or Liberal synagogue.

The sacrificial impulse

“Take your son, your favoured one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.” Genesis 22

And so begins the story of the Akeidah [the binding of Isaac], where Abraham is instructed by God to sacrifice his son. This is a foundational story within the Jewish tradition, read on Rosh Hashanah as we get ready for the days of repentance prior to Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. The sacrificial impulse in us is strong, it is primal and it goes deep. Abraham, however, ultimately does not sacrifice his son, and sacrifices a ram instead. Much of Jewish practice and Jewish tradition can be understood as attempting to resist this sacrificial impulse, which is most often expressed as an instinct to treat others as objects rather than unique and diverse individuals, with their own needs, wants, interests and desires. Treating others as objects rather than as individuals is, by its nature, sacrificing them – it is removing their humanity in pursuit of some alternate goal.

The history of the Jewish people has offered different templates in how to manage this sacrificial impulse. First, the story of the Akeidah demonstrates the innate impulse to sacrifice others, which was present in Abraham, the first patriarch. The text offers, however, an alternative way out, which is to sacrifice an animal as a symbol to satisfy that sacrificial impulse.

In the period of the 1st and 2nd temples, meanwhile, the religious practice of the Israelite people was in large part centred on bringing all manner of offerings and sacrifices to the Temple in Jerusalem. This is where animal sacrifice was practiced, where animals would be offered in response to particular sins or at certain times of the year. 

Then, after the destruction of the 2nd temple and the establishment and development of Rabinnic Judaism, the early Rabbis sought to ritualise and replace sacrifice. Sacrifice would no longer be about considering harming humans, as was the case for Abraham in the Akeidah story, or about sacrificing animals, as was the case in Temple period Judaism, but rather the activity of prayer and religious services would replace the ritual of sacrifice. Prayer would be done in community, and in dialogue with one another.

Thus praying in community, and to be in dialogue with God, would become the vehicle through which the sacrificial impulse is channelled. However, the sacrificial impulse is still there, and we need to continue and maintain that communal and dialogical process, if we have any hope of avoiding giving in to the sacrificial impulse of treating one another like objects, to be sacrificed for some greater power.

However, during the Covid pandemic the process of community prayer was declared nonessential, community prayer was criminalised, and places of worship closed. Meanwhile, the sacrificial impulse governed our behaviour, such that we started to treat people as objects, without their own individual needs, that could be coerced, forced and harmed in certain ways to satisfy the sacrificial impulse of others, in pursuit of the false unachievable goal of maximal suppression of viral transmission, and a denial of the realities of ill health and death. This included sacrificing the innate need of children to interact, socialise and play, the needs of the elderly to see relatives and maintain social contact, and the rights of migration, free movement, and free assembly were also sacrificed – all done in the pursuit of reducing transmission of Covid-19; despite the evidence behind most of these measures being weak with little significant material public health impact.

Covid-19 idolatry and its destructive force

Abraham, as the Midrash [commentary] tells us, was the son of a statue-maker and idol shop owner. However Abraham noticed that the idols, sold by his father as Gods, were false and artificial, and existed purely for the purposes of economic exploitation, so that his father could make money out of people’s false belief in statues. He recognised the hollowness of this ideology and in a fit of rage, destroyed the idols. However Abraham, being human himself, very nearly gave in to his own harmful sacrificial impulse in being willing to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice, before it becoming clear that was not the correct path for him to take.

It is not likely, in a predominantly secular Western culture, that many of us will turn to idol shops, and sacrifice our resources in order to purchase statues which we then raise up as false Gods. However the attraction of idolatry has not gone away and is part and parcel of human nature and human society. We are just as prone now, as we were in the Biblical period, to raise up artificial authority, and to ritualise objects that we allow to represent this authority and to govern our lives. We elevate this authority in the hope that it will offer us some solution to the difficult realities of human existence; that it will be able to offer immortality, or never-ending beauty, or provide wealth, or remove sickness. However this is a false authority, it is an authority that can never deliver, and its symbols which we allow to govern us are our modern-day idols.

Much of our Covid-19 pandemic response has been built on various fantasies; that we can remove respiratory viruses from the world, that it is within the control of human society to prevent viral mutations and therefore the forming of new variants, that it is possible to freeze society and pick it up again without difficulty, that all death is avoidable, and that it is possible to replace human interaction with that which is mediated via screen technology. It is these fantasies that have allowed us to invest authority in medical bureaucracies, in the vain hope that if only we follow the instructions of the medical bureaucracy, then illness will be removed, viruses will not mutate, and death will be removed from society.

This authority, and its system of idolatry, has demanded the sacrifice of our most precious and intimate human experiences. Loved ones, dying alone. Young people, denied the opportunity of romantic exploration. Pregnant women, attending antenatal appointments alone. B’nai mitzvah, cancelled. Services for people struggling with mental illness, closed. Perhaps most brutally, funerals criminalised. Shivas disbanded. Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, where we ascend from our own corporal reality, was mediated through a screen, and it seemed as though our spiritual lives were administered by Zoom, sponsored by Apple, streamed on Facebook.

The Covid idolatry, meanwhile, is complex – some of its idols are symbols we fix to ourselves, other idols are the items we raise up in our places of worship, still more are pieces of technology that we might hide behind. All remove meaning and stifle community experience. The idols are meaningless in and of themselves, and few even have any impact within their own system of authority of reducing viral transmission. These are idols that cut deep into our basic humanity and interfere with our relational lives. Masks, perspex screens, mobile phone vaccine records, the litter of lateral flow tests; all of these are objects which we subsume ourselves to in order to pursue this false authority.

“Jerusalem has greatly sinned,
Therefore she has become a mockery.
All who admired her despise her,
For they have seen her disgraced;
And she can only sigh
And shrink back. 

Her uncleanness clings to her skirts.
She gave no thought to her future;
She has sunk appallingly,
With none to comfort her.—
See, O God, my misery;
How the enemy jeers!” Lamentations 1;8-9

These are the mournful, deeply moving words, which are chanted in synagogue on Tisha B’Av, the Jewish day of loss. Yet during the pandemic – for those communities that were meeting in-person – these verses were read behind masks, socially distant, with perspex screens scattered through the synagogue hall. On Tisha B’Av, we are asked to mourn for our losses, but also to relive the destruction of Jerusalem as recorded in the Book of Lamentations. However for me, on Tisha b’Av 2021, the symbols of destruction were all around me. It was the masks, the perspex screens, which represent the very destruction of our communal lives. The Book of Lamentations goes on to say “Who might revive my spirit; my children are forlorn,” encapsulating the devastating, yet sadly universal, experience of how children suffer at times of destruction.

Our response to the pandemic not only elevated false authority, built on ideas disconnected from the realities of human existence, and not only did it create a system of idolatry, of symbols which were used to mediate this authority; but furthermore that system of idolatry was welcomed in and installed within the very hearts of Jewish communities, and therefore in many ways we directly relived that destruction ourselves, which is so powerfully described in the Book of Lamentations.

Hold the authority close to you. Question it, understand it.

In Deuteronomy 30:14 it is written “No, the thing [commandments] is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” The Torah instructs us to hold this authority close to us, to talk it through, to feel it, allow it to be in dialogue with our own values, and to observe and to study it. It speaks to the importance of a non-centralised system of power, such that decision-making should be held not with a distant authority, but should remain with us as individuals and as communities.

This value is fundamental to Jewish practice, texts and ritual. The Torah scrolls are processed around the synagogue every Shabbat in order to demonstrate that this authority sits with the community and is not invested solely in community leaders and Rabbis. The Jewish method of study, where two students will together talk through and interpret a text in a chavruta [study partnership], demonstrates the need to hear different perspectives in order to make attempts at furthering our understanding. The Talmud teaches us that Torah study should be done in a group. Knowledge can never fully be gained by an individual receiving instructions from the Torah scroll; rather that knowledge can only be acquired by being in dialogue with other humans, discussing the texts, and learning it from different perspectives.

Yet our response to the Covid-19 pandemic did not allow for us to remain in dialogue with authority. “Follow the science” was the mantra, and our own expertise as community leaders, Rabbis, teachers, and students was marginalised or simply ignored. We were unwilling to make attempts at understanding the recommendations, their context, and their underlying evidence, and simply became rule followers. We did not enter into dialogue with public health guidance, to work it out together, view it from different perspectives and with different frameworks, disagree with one another and argue, in order to guide our decision making.  Rather we simply stopped making any decisions at all, and there was no attempt to interrogate the evidence and logic behind the public health advice, and we subsumed ourselves to it and simply followed the instructions.

This was not “holding the authority close to us,” rather it was the opposite – it was investing a belief in a distant authority that could not be questioned. To do so was considered dangerous, and risked making one a social pariah. That age-old, much celebrated Jewish value of questioning was simply lost and forgotten. As Rabbi Dan Ain stated in his recent opinion piece, we all became ‘the child that does not know enough to ask’ – and in the process became disenfranchised and disempowered.

Jewish practice as a liberatory theology

It is a commandment in the Torah to remember the liberation of the Israelites from slavery every day, and to celebrate our freedom. Even during the darkest periods of Jewish history, Jewish communities have observed the festival of Passover, which tells the story of our liberation, and celebrates freedom. It does not matter what is going on in wider society, how oppressive the political structures might be; the tools of our liberation sit with us, in the stories that we tell ourselves, in our spiritual life, and in how that might motivate us to take action to repair the world around us and to pursue justice. This liberatory impulse has inspired many Jews to participate in the liberation struggles, which in recent decades have included the women’s liberation movement, queer and gay liberation, and black liberation movements.

There are no doubts that the public health response to the pandemic was counter-liberatory, both in practical and structural terms. Practically, our hard fought for civil liberties such as freedom to protest, freedom of movement, and freedom of assembly of people were overturned overnight. Forcing women to stay at home led to an escalation in incidents of domestic violence, and a re-entrenchment of traditional gender roles that the women’s liberation movement had fought to overturn. 

Meanwhile, services for gay and queer youth were forcibly closed, and the forced closure of gay bars, cafes, alongside educational establishments, meant that gay and queer young people had almost no opportunities to meet one another, which is essential to build community. Put simply, the lockdowns immediately overturned decades of progress within the liberation movements.

Yet, despite our immediate freedoms being removed, and the very act of holding a Passover seder forbidden by criminal law, few in positions of religious leadership within the Jewish community were able to give a theological or even a communal response, other than approving and sanctioning these restrictions on liberty. Yet traditional Jewish theology is clear – we already are a free people! When the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson supposedly granted us our liberation by declaring a “freedom day,” the response could have been “we already are free – freedom, and all of its responsibility sits with us.” Instead, however, many campaigned for the enforced restrictions to continue to be written into criminal law even longer.

As well as inviting us to reflect on our own liberation, the Passover story also encourages us to tie our liberation to being open, inclusive and welcoming. “Welcome the stranger, because remember you were once strangers in the land of Egypt” is the message we tell ourselves, and at Seder [the Passover meal] we read “let all who are hungry, come here and eat.” 

Our Passover liturgy and ritual understands that turning inwards on ourselves, drawing up the bridges, and closing our doors does not lead to an open-hearted liberation – rather it lends itself to repressive and isolationist thinking and behaviour. These ideals should be embraced particularly during a time of crisis, yet during the pandemic so many encouraged the policy approach that led to our borders to be closed, and simply chose not to understand the inevitable consequences that would have on migration and asylum rights, as well as cruelly dividing families that lived across borders with members in different countries. We need our religious leaders, at a time of crisis, to encourage us to be open-hearted and welcoming, yet instead most approved policies with the implicit message “You are not welcome here, regardless of your need.”

How good it is to be together

There is a popular psalm that translates “How good and sweet it is for brothers to sit here together.” This highlights one of the core values of community – how important it is for us to be together, right here, right now, in our bodies, in this physical space, in all of our diversity. This is what it is to be human, which is to share space, air, and to rely and be interdependent on one another. Fundamentally, any policy, or system of governance, that seeks to break down and alienate us from each other will never be successful in the longer term as it runs counter to the very nature of what it is to be a human being. Despite the silences that have existed so far from those in positions of religious leadership, slowly, two years on, our spiritual and human realities are resurfacing themselves. And how good and sweet it is for us to be together!

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