Background: I received both doses of the Moderna vaccine in March of this year. Just over two weeks ago I suffered a bad cold, and was asked to be tested. On the fourth day of my symptoms, I received a positive antigen test. Nine days into my quarantine, I chose to take the PCR test which also returned a positive result. (A polymerase chain reaction [PCR] test detects genetic material from a specific organism, such as a virus, if you are infected at the &me of the test; the test can detect fragments of virus even after you are no longer infected.) I was instructed by my physician and the Pima County Health Department if I showed no symptoms after my tenth day of quarantine, I was fine to return to my normal activities. It is possible that I would continue to have a positive PCR test for nine months. There would be no reason for me to be tested again since I am asymptomatic.
The following was delivered on Friday, July 30, 2021.
This afternoon I received a phone call from the Manager of Spiritual Care at TMC. She asked whether there were Jewish values that supported vaccination against COVID-19 and if there might be an orthodox or other Jewish opinion that would not support such a proposition. Let me just begin by saying, I am not giving medical advice. That is between you and your physician.
I was going to speak to the congregation about this subject anyway. As some or most of you are aware, even though I received both of my vaccinations this past March, I tested positive for COVID a few weeks ago. It was for this reason that the synagogue was shut down from in-person services and classes for two weeks.
I was perturbed, upset, and a bit depressed that this occurred. My family has been vaccinated and we have taken every precaution to protect ourselves and others through social distancing, mask wearing, and curtailing, as much as possible, venturing out in public at all. And despite taking, what we thought was every safeguard, I caught a bad cold with a low-grade fever. I did not think that it was anything but a bad cold. My sister-in-law, who is also a pharmacist and one of my dearest friends, Susan Pollack, who is a pharmacist, both thought it advisable for me to get tested. The antigen test came back positive and a few days later the PCR test came back positive as well.
This was distressing on so many levels. Although we had been doing everything to keep ourselves and others safe, once I received my positive test result, I had to contact the Pima County Health Department. They are amazing, and do such a wonderful job following up on those who have been in contact with someone testing positive for COVID. I gave them the names of eight of my friends with whom I had been in contact with earlier this month. They all got phone calls from the Health Department asking about their temperature, general health and precautions. At the same time, a number of our congregants got upset because we could not remember everyone who was on the bima with me when I was asymptomatic, so we could be in touch with them to get tested. We have created improved protocols since then, so that if someone does get the virus and they were in our building, we will be able to contact everyone immediately. I am thankful for that.
I am upset that some of you did not hear from me or us in a timely way. But, what is more upsetting is that I got this virus from someone who was not vaccinated. Now, before you rush to say, “But rabbi, you can get the virus from someone who was vaccinated too.” Yes, but … some unvaccinated person got the virus first and then gave it to a vaccinated person who gave it to me. Ultimately, it starts with someone who is not vaccinated. By the way, when you hear news reports of COVID patients in the hospital, 97 percent of them are unvaccinated, so you should understand that 100 percent of them, whether vaccinated or unvaccinated, got the virus from someone who is not vaccinated!
I know there are a those who have legitimate medical reasons for not being vaccinated. I understand that. I also understand that no one meant to infect me as if someone thought, “Oh, there is Rabbi Louchheim, let me infect him so that he will be miserable for a few days.” What upsets me is that one unvaccinated person caused this synagogue building to shut down for two weeks. No one was allowed to come to class, to worship or to work, and members of our religious community were literally frightened for their lives. The chances are the unvaccinated individual thought more of their personal freedom than of the repercussions their values might have on our community! When a personal value (apart from pekuach nefesh) puts a community at risk, then one must dispense with an adherence to that value.
It is important for us to understand the Jewish values1 that impact each of us to make the right decision when confronted or confounded by this issue. And, I will give you the orthodox opinion at the end of my remarks.
1. Pikuach Nefesh – “saving a life.” You already know that this is the most important of all Jewish values. This trumps all other commandments. If your life is going to be saved through the consumption of food and all you have available is a ham and cheese sandwich, you eat the ham and cheese sandwich. Kashrut has no relevance when it is a life or death decision. Our sacred sages and your rabbis have always taught that we can forgo almost any commandment or prohibition in order to preserve life. This pertains not only to whatever you can do to protect yourself from getting the coronavirus, you also have a responsibility to look out for the health and safety of everyone around you. Your professional team here at Temple Emanu-El has your health and welfare in mind every time they consider how we will open our doors a little bit more or a little bit less. Yes, it is to protect your clergy and those who work here, but we also have an obligation to protect your lives as well.
2. Kedushah – “holiness.” What is the value of holiness? It means that we take seriously a desire to be like God; not to be God, but to be like God. A deeper understanding of this value of holiness is to experience life at a higher spiritual level. Lisa in her Drash asked the right question this evening, “Who are we Jews to think that we are anything special?” We are not, unless we commit ourselves to “set apart” our personal feelings for a higher good. “Set apart” is another translation of kedushah. If we “set apart” our personal feelings, our individual desires, and act as though everyone matters, that is acting on the value of kedushah.
Decisions that we make are to benefit others, often at our own expense. Kedushah helps us affirm the uniqueness and value of the other person. Your holiness demands that you sit and bear witness to someone who may think about things differently than you do.
Embracing the concept of holiness means that we listen to our ancient teachings which give us instructions not only about making good choices for ourselves, but also choosing to protect others from harming themselves or others by the choices they make. In the Torah portion Ki Tetze, When you build a new house, then you shall make a parapet for your roof; then you will not put blood-guilt on your house if the faller falls from it (Deuteronomy22:8). Neglecting to make a sufficient defense against such accidents, the owner is considered liable. By extension, we, evaluate the parapet – the protective layer – in this building to protect, as best we can, any of you from getting ill from this virus.
3. Dina d’malchuta dina— “The law of the land is the law” (Shulchan Aruch). We have a sacred responsibility to support and follow the laws of the nation in which we live. So, when the elected leaders mandate mask wearing, then we are to wear masks. If the local, state or federal authorities mandated vaccination, then we are to be vaccinated. There is one exception: you have the right and responsibility to respectfully and clearly speak out when we see injustices being carried out in the name of the law. In this case, there is no Jewish basis for objecting to the mandates I just mentioned if the authorities require them. Also, if the civil authorities are not doing enough to protect the community from this virus, we are to stand up and demand that they do.
4. Nechamah – “comforting the afflicted.” Boy, do we know how important this value is during this pandemic. We have suffered personally and professionally. We have suffered economic losses and emotional losses. Our loss of normalcy has clouded our thinking so much that for many, surfacing from this pandemic does not seem to be on the horizon. We sense this loss and outlook in our family, in our community, and in our nation. We feel isolated from being able to do anything about it.
However, the act of comforting is an action we can all partake in to provide a level of relief from this suffering. We can pick up the phone and tell someone that they are not alone, that they are cherished and that we are thinking about them. I called up three congregants this afternoon, and they were so delighted to receive my call. I will continue to make as many calls as I can, but these calls do not have to come from Rabbi Louchheim. And, it does not have to be for any reason other than to say, “hello” and to check in on how they are doing.
I once thanked a colleague, who runs our regional rabbinic conference every January in Palm Springs, about the phone calls I received from him every once in a while. He jokingly said to me that I should not think that I am someone special when he does that. He began the practice decades before when he decided to randomly call different colleagues across the country to check in. He understood how difficult our job is and how isolated many of us feel and that a call from a friend might just help us a little. And, it does!
5. Chazon – “Vision”. Vision means discovering new options based on new circumstances to sustain your mission. This summer has been the summer of innovation, trying to do things in a hybrid way. We have tried to discover the proper protocols to keep you safe and for us to produce our religious product, if you will – provide us all a means to celebrate a spiritual and educational experience that is meaningful. Our Kol Ami Opening Taskforce is trying to discover options where we don’t have to close down, but and at the same time protect everyone’s health.
One of the things that this pandemic has forced us to do here is to consider how to carry out our mission in new ways. We have had to examine and question every aspect of our congregation. With all the pain and upset caused by our need to close our building, we have also discovered new options and opportunities to celebrate Jewish life. We know that when this crisis is over, the lessons we have learned and the new modalities of worship, learning, communicating and congregating will serve us well as we move into Post-COVID-19 life. We also have discovered the centrality and importance of sacred community in our isolation from one another. “We need one another and are determined to continue to provide multiple portals of entry into our Kehillah Kedoshah – our sacred community.”2
6. Hevei M’tunim – “Be Patient”. In the Mishnah (Pirke Avot 1:1), our ancient rabbis taught that being patient while deliberating is one of the most important values we can possess. Boy, is that tough for us! I understand when people lose their patience and when people are aggravated and frustrated. But if you would only step back, take a breath, and understand in a crisis moment that you are not alone in this leaking boat. A little patience and graceful conversation go a long way.
Which leads to the conversation I had with my friend who is an orthodox rabbi in town. I asked him is there a Jewish reason a Jew should not be vaccinated? The first thing he said to me, which was the first thing I said to you this evening, was “I am no medical expert and I am not giving any medical advice. Every person should discuss this with their personal physician. We support anyone who is not getting vaccinated for medical reasons.” That being said:
7. Al Tifrosh min hatzibur – “Don’t separate yourself from the community” (Pirkei Avot 2:4). There is nothing more important among Jewish values – besides pikuach nefesh – than being a part of and supporting the Jewish community. Judaism does not advocate personal freedom or liberty above that of the community. And, to quote Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, of blessed memory, “The word freedom does not appear in the Constitution.” Vaccination and mask wearing has nothing to do with of loss of personal freedom anyway. There is a higher value we as Americans hold dear:
The Preamble does however state that as Americans, “We the People of the United States [have a responsibility to] . . . promote the general Welfare . . . to ourselves and our Posterity. . ..” You are part of a larger enterprise to which you have a responsibility to protect as American citizens.
My rabbi friend told me that nowhere in Jewish halachah is it stated that your individual need or desire is more important than the preservation of the community. Al tifrosh min hatzibur, “do not separate yourself from your community.” If what you are doing is separating yourself from the community by potentially harming that community, this is a violation of your religious responsibility.
We strive to create a community at Or Chadash with Temple Emanu-El through the vision we strive after: Kol Ami – to become “all of God’s people” together here. And, by the way, the government sets up all sorts of regulations for the safety of the community and our country. Why does this become the exception to the rule? When you fly, you have to show your personal information, not carry fluids, you can’t smoke, you are not allowed to have certain items in your baggage, you have to wear seatbelts on the plane and in your own personal vehicle. The government sets up all sorts of regulations for safety and security of yourself and others. We already live in that world and vaccinations and masks are only an additional requirement to what we have. You can choose to go over the speed limit. You can choose to not get vaccinated, but there are consequences for that. Judaism demands that you think carefully about the choices you make and rebukes you from making choices that might put your community at risk.
Let me suggest another way of looking at this issue with regards to mask wearing and vaccination. Putting on a mask is not just for medical reasons. The mask is a visual psychological prompt to remind you to change your behavior. It is a cultural symbol: you uphold the values of the community and have some sense of responsibility to everyone else. Vaccination is no different: it is your act of responsibility toward everyone else. As Jewish Americans we have a religious and civil responsibility to not separate ourselves from our community and potentially endanger lives! Choosing “liberty” or “freedom” as one’s highest value, is, in this case, choosing the value of separation as superior to the ideal of protecting and “promoting the general Welfare” and bringing our communities together.
I want to conclude my sermon with remarks I wrote for the Arizona Star at the beginning of this pandemic over a year and a half ago. My main point back then was to tell people that COVID-19 is not a plague.
The reason it is not a plague is because, when you look at the history of plagues in human history, there is one thing they all held in common: once the plague was over, people who were friends and neighbors before the plague, turned away from each other afterwards. They did not speak to each other and they did not return quickly to their normal activities once it was over. Why? Because they were so embarrassed by how they behaved during the pandemic! They only valued their own lives and the lives of their immediate family. They turned away from helping anyone else.3
Boy, is this different. We see people across the world, in every state in our country and in so many communities around the nation putting their lives at risk to save others. Even though healthcare workers everywhere are on the verge of exhaustion, nations are giving vaccines away to nations that cannot afford them, neighbors are shopping for neighbors, churches, synagogues, mosques are gathering volunteers to help whoever needs a little extra help. Communities have risen up together to provide sustenance, support and comfort wherever they can.
This is the first “plague” in human history, that, when it is over, we will be able to look at each other face to face, embrace and express gratitude that so few people turned away this time, and so many more turned toward each other to “love their neighbor as themselves.” Amen.
1Values derived from A Jewish Values Matrix for Dealing with a Time of Illness, by Rabbi Joe Black of Temple Emanuel in Denver, Colorado, April 3, 2020. https://urj.org/blog/jewish-values-matrix-dealing-time-illness.
2From A Jewish Values Matrix for Reopening Temple Emanuel, page 2.
3From a discussion with Kenneth V. Iserson, M.D., MBA, FACEP, FAAEM, FIFEM Professor Emeritus, Dept. of Emergency Medicine, The University of Arizona, Tucson.