I’ve been in an apartment on a quiet Jerusalem street for the past couple of weeks. Last week I spent Shabbat alone for the first time. Friday night after dinner I strolled down our little hill, careful not to go farther than the mandated 100 meters. And I heard singing. From the rooftops of Jerusalem, Jews were welcoming the Sabbath queen. On my own street, distributed across about 100 feet, people stood at a social distance, praying together (how did I not hear about this? I guess I’m not in the right WhatsApp group). A bearded gentleman gave me a look that translates from Hebrew as, “Nu, so you’re late to shul, fine, I won’t make a big deal out of it, it so happens there’s an empty seat next to Yitzchak in the corner, and, I have to tell you, he has a daughter about your age . . .” but at that point I walked briskly by so I wouldn't draw attention.
Israel has shut down. Rightly so, it seems to me, for the Lord instructed us that “You shall keep my laws and commandments, which a man shall perform and live by them.” There are exceptional cases. Certain sins—murder, idolatry, incest, adultery—involve total desecration of the divine image. In times of persecution, we sanctify the Lord’s name in radical sacrifice by preferring death to even minor transgressions.
But saving a life trumps even observing the Sabbath and fasting on Yom Kippur. And it is not a matter of personal choice. Why is that? The Talmud says that you should violate the Sabbath to save a life so that whoever you save will keep many Sabbaths. Our raison d’être is the work we do on this earth. God did not give us his holidays, his sacrifices and laws of purity and agriculture, his rules of commerce and charity and personal conduct, so we could rack up points to be cashed in upon entry into the next world. He put us here, as it were, to till the garden and work it, so that he could make of us a great nation and bless all the earth through the chosen children of Abraham. The Mishnah in Tractate Avot teaches that one hour of repentance and performing commandments on this earth is dearer than all the world to come. The Vilna Gaon, one of our people’s great sages, was inconsolable on his deathbed—he could not bear to complete his term as an earthly agent of his Father in Heaven.
I am not an economist (nor was I meant to be) or a professional applied ethicist. I find all these decisions to be intolerably complicated. The cost to businesses and to jobs (and therefore to dignity and health and marriage) of this shutdown is high indeed. I expect that Israel, a country that has lived for 75 years hoping for better days, has wealth and solidarity enough in its national treasuries to get through this.
The Jewish perspective on life is, I think, part of why the Israelis have decided to sedate their economy for the sake of physical health. Israeli history also plays a role. Two dozen times a day in my yeshiva, I walk by a memorial to boys my age who died in the Yom Kippur War. They were classmates of my own teachers. My yeshiva being the sort of place it is, their own sons would have been my friends. I remember when I heard that Naphtali Frenkel, Gilad Sha’er, and Eyal Yifrah had been found murdered. For the first time I wept for people I’d never met. They were kidnapped just outside Alon Shevut, where I study. The standing policy of the Jewish state is that there should not be fewer Jews. A state would only have this policy if the state were really a family. Already we’ve lost Holocaust survivors to this virus. Should we lose more of them?
R. R. Reno has written in recent days of the distinction in Catholic thought between intentionally killing and letting die. Judaism acknowledges in many places this crucial distinction, which puts the human actor, with his practical point of view, at the center of moral philosophy where he belongs. There is another principle in Jewish thought—whoever saves a single life, it is as if he has saved the whole world. To be sure, death will come at some point for each of us. Judaism doesn’t view that prospect with equanimity. “In Sheol, who will give thanks to You?,” we cry to God twice each day.
Sacramental life in Israel has tolerated the national confinement. That’s because everything can be made sacred or profane. The Lord is a jealous God, and cares deeply what goes on in the kitchen, the bedroom, the office, the shul—body and mind in all things are his. You can practice (or fail to practice) Judaism everywhere. Israelis are praying and loving and studying at home, the true center of Jewish life. “How goodly are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, oh Israel?”
Rav Mosheh Lichtenstein, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion and my revered teacher, wrote recently that today’s “isolated man” is in a condition very different from the one his grandfather Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik described in The Lonely Man of Faith. We can no longer trust in “man’s conquest of nature,” Rav Lichtenstein writes, but have to turn to God “to battle nature.” On my reading, the spiritual threat right now is not arrogance but despair.
In the work just mentioned, Rav Soloveitchik describes the painful divorce in religious life: We are always with others and yet the most important thing about a man of faith, his knowledge and love of God, is something he simply cannot share with others. Last Shabbat I was never more alone, or less lonely.
Cole S. Aronson studies at Yeshivat Har Etzion in the Judean hills.