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When visible Jews endanger lives

You think it’s anti-Semitic to criticize Orthodox Jewish gatherings? Then you might want to rethink Judaism.

(RNS) — I have so had it with Satmar Hasidim

Actually, I had it with Satmar, long ago, because of their vehement anti-Zionism.

But, that is a “mere” intellectual disagreement which rarely, if ever, has consequences in the real world. Israel has continued to thrive, in every way, despite Satmar’s petulance.

But, their most recent antics — secretly holding a wedding with thousands of men at a synagogue in Brooklyn, flagrantly violating New York City’s masking regulations — has pushed me over the top. The city is fining the synagogue $15,000 for that brazen violation.

It is not only the sheer chutzpah of it.

It is not only their sneakiness in having that wedding, complete with exuberant singing, which is a guaranteed spreader.

It is not only their nose-thumbing at secular authority. (This tendency is part and parcel with their anti-Zionism: What can the secular state possibly have to say that would be relevant to them?)

It is their violent disregard of Jewish law, which gives protecting and saving human life precedence over almost all other mitzvot. It is called pikuach Nefesh — saving a life — and it is a supreme Jewish value.

Here is what the Shulchan Arukh, the authoritative code of Jewish law, has to say about this.

One should avoid all things that might lead to danger because a danger to life is stricter than a prohibition. … They also write that one should flee a city when there is plague in the city, and one should go when the plague is in its beginning, not at its end. One should be more concerned about a possible danger to life than a possible prohibition … And it is prohibited to rely on a miracle or to put one’s life in danger.

Yes, it is a mitzvah to rejoice with a couple at their wedding. But, however praiseworthy that mitzvah is, it is less important than saving lives.

Yes, it is a mitzvah to honor the dead and to accompany them to burial. But, however praiseworthy that mitzvah is, it is less important than saving lives.

Yes, it is a mitzvah to study Jewish texts, preferably with a study partner. But, however praiseworthy that mitzvah is, it is less important than saving lives.

Lest you think that I am only singling out Satmar and Jews here, let me put this into a wider perspective.

As everyone knows, COVID is surging right now, just in time for Thanksgiving and the winter holidays. The CDC said: “Travel may increase your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19. Postponing travel and staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others this year.”

And yet, Americans are ignoring that warning. In droves.

According to the Transportation Security Administration, more than 1.04 million people  went through airport security checkpoints Sunday (Nov. 22), the most since mid-March, NPR reported Monday. 

So, let me “upgrade” what I just said about mitzvoth, and make this central Jewish idea applicable to all people, and not just to Jews.

Yes, it is a mitzvah (a meritorious act) to honor one’s parents by being with them, and to spend time with family. But, however praiseworthy those meritorious acts are, they are less important than saving lives.

Or, let me put it another way.

Jewish law wonders aloud: Is it permissible to desecrate the Sabbath if it means saving a life — especially even your own life?

The answer: Desecrate one Sabbath, that you might live to celebrate many more Sabbaths.

Translation into American terms: Miss one Thanksgiving in person with your family, that you might live to celebrate many more Thanksgivings.

Eat together over Zoom.

Think of it: That boorish uncle that you barely tolerate?

You can now mute him.

And, be grateful that you have your health.

Let me get back to my rage at Satmar.

When the most visibly “Jewish” Jews behave irresponsibly, there is a Jewish term for that.  

 It is hillul ha-shem, bringing disrepute to God, Judaism and the Jewish people by acting in a vile manner.

It is not only that their actions affect all Jews, by possibly leading Jew haters into anti-Semitism. Jew-haters never need real-life excuses for their hatred.

No — it is also because their actions reflect on Judaism, and on God.

And, no: Don’t switch on your default switch and accuse Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo of being anti-Semitic:  “Why aren’t they condemning other gatherings of people who aren’t wearing masks?”

What is this — third grade? 

How about: “We Jews have a moral obligation to be exemplars of proper behavior. That is our mission to the world. We should be held to a higher standard — because God holds us to a higher standard.”

We are not the first generation of Jews who have encountered the challenge of a plague. In the 1600s in Italy, cholera beset many Jewish communities, taking horrific tolls.

For nine months, the Jews in Rome did not go to synagogue.

But, subsequently, every year on the Shabbat of Hanukkah, they would remember their survival, and give thanks for that survival.

What did they do to commemorate their survival?

They made pillows for the poor of the city.

They allowed their gratitude to extend beyond their own borders, and to embrace others through this precious mitzvah of lovingkindness.

Think about it.

Satmar, think about it.