Progressively Speaking: How should we respond to coronavirus?
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Progressively Speaking: How should we respond to coronavirus?

Amid the global pandemic, senior Reform rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner offers a progressive response to the crisis

Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner
Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner

 It is at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Even in our modern age of medical miracles, a disease such as coronavirus is a significant cause for concern. What does our tradition have for us to learn about dealing with it?

The first is a lesson not to learn. In the Torah, many plagues are seen as direct punishment for wrongdoing. One example is the leprosy-like tzaraat supposed to be caused by lashon hara, or evil words.

There are some who will seek to blame misfortune in our world on wrongdoing, or even on deliberate conspiracy of others.

We, as representatives of our faith, must reject such suggestions. Diseases – such as floods, hurricanes or any other disaster – are
a natural part of our world beyond our control. They test our resilience, but they are not signs of a divine disapproval.

What our tradition does teach us is the attitudes we will need to cope with a potential outbreak like this.

The most essential of these values is that of pikuach nefesh – the value of a life. We learn explicitly that there is no more important commandment than that of saving a life.

If it is going to take the breaking of our cultural norms, such as Shabbat or kashrut, then we set it aside for the value of a life.

The potential for disruption is great if Covid-19 spreads but, whatever happens, we must remember that the lives of those around us come first.

It is not a burden, but a mitzvah to break Jewish laws to save lives and, similarly, we must see it as a positive obligation to do what is necessary for the health of all.

Another vital Jewish value at this time is helping those who are vulnerable. We are not to put a stumbling block in front of the blind, we must clothe the naked and we must respect our elders.

Given the nature of this disease and how it is more likely to impact those who are older or more vulnerable in our society, we must remember those who need our help and support them – whether by assisting them or by helping to control the spread of disease to them by impinging on our own lives.

Our values are what we cling to in times of trouble. The values of our community seem particularly apt, whatever coronavirus brings
our way.

  • Laura Janner-Klausner is a senior rabbi at the Movement for Reform Judaism
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