Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis has warned the community that despite recent government moves to ease the lockdown on places of worship, it will not yet be possible to open synagogues for individuals — much though people might wish to do so.
In a warmly-worded letter to rabbis, rebbetzins and the presidents and chairs of United Synagogue congregations, Chief Rabbi Mirvis says the government’s latest regulation on individual prayer in places of worship was “an initiative championed by our Christian friends for whom individual prayer is a strong part of their tradition. As such, I was pleased to support them”.
But, he says, given the “alarming increased death rate in our community compared to the wider population”, and bearing in mind that individual prayer “is not a feature of Jewish communal life”, re-opening is not a safe proposition for synagogues yet.
The chief rabbi makes it clear that “we would all dearly love to be back in our shul buildings for communal prayer services and all the other wonderful activities that make our shuls powerful spiritual hubs and vital community centres”.
But he says that the possibility of allowing individuals into shuls for private prayer could lead to people either intentionally or inadvertently linking up to form a minyan — which is not permitted at the moment. “It would be tempting to use the permission granted for individual prayer to open our shuls so that we can daven privately in the presence of others. Doing so, however, could be an act of ‘placing a stumbling block before the blind’, because those present for individual prayer might be tempted to daven together in a minyan, which would be a clear breach of the law and a desecration of Hashem’s name”.
The chief rabbi also expresses concern that such a breach “could also lead inadvertently to the government delaying the opening of places of worship for communal prayer”.
Chief Rabbi Mirvis has been in regular contact with the government “to impress upon them the crucial importance of our shuls opening for communal prayer as soon as safely possible, with all necessary precautions in place”.
Acknowledging that it has been “incredibly painful” to have been unable to pray with a minyan for so long, the chief rabbi nevertheless says that “it is clear to me that our shuls must remain closed until the government permits places of worship to be open for communal prayer”.
The current death statistics highlight the danger for the Jewish community, Chief Rabbi Mirvis says, adding that he believes it “would not be right to open our shuls at a time when there is genuine risk to life”.