Throughout the pandemic, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has singled out the Jewish community for violating “stay-at-home” orders. Now, although Jews still face severe restrictions on religious gatherings after months without access to synagogues, he has permitted protesters to gather in the thousands and break social distancing guidelines. Why do political protests deserve special dispensation but religious services do not? Some have accused de Blasio of anti-Semitism, but he has always shown himself to be a trusted ally of the Jewish community. I believe the reason for his inconsistency is in some ways more insidious: Secular society sees religion—and public worship in particular—as little more than a cultural expression or a lifestyle choice.
After a leading Hasidic rabbi passed away from coronavirus in late April, his followers attempted to hold a “socially distanced” funeral procession through the streets of Williamsburg. In Jewish tradition, you show respect by walking with the deceased as he is taken to burial. After agreeing to allow mourners to walk six feet apart in the streets while activists handed out masks, police retracted their permission at the last minute and pushed mourners onto sidewalks, where crowding was inevitable. After seeing pictures of the crowds on social media, de Blasio tweeted his disapproval, calling out Orthodox Jews as unique transgressors of social distancing rules: “My message to the Jewish community, and all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed. I have instructed the NYPD to proceed immediately to summons or even arrest those who gather in large groups.”
Under de Blasio's watch, New York has seen a sharp increase in anti-Semitic incidents. This ill-advised comment stirred an already boiling pot of hatred. During the pandemic, police have targeted the Jewish community by closing the few operating synagogues and yeshivas, shutting down Jewish businesses deemed non-essential, and issuing summonses in Jewish neighborhoods to people walking without masks.
I support the decision to close houses of worship to save lives during this health crisis. I have attended too many Zoom funerals to underestimate the force of this pandemic. And yet I am surprised by the vehemence against the Jewish community. Why have other violations of social distancing rules drawn less indignation than religious services and funeral processions?
When asked about this contradiction, de Blasio said, “When you see a nation, an entire nation, simultaneously grappling with an extraordinary crisis seeded in 400 years of American racism, I’m sorry, that is not the same question as the understandably aggrieved store owner or the devout religious person who wants to go back to services.” Aside from the bizarre spectacle of touting 400 years of oppression to members of a community suffering from two millennia of oppression, the response raises other questions that point to the primary spiritual malady of our time.
Jews do not see religion as secular society sees it. Jews believe that prayer and Torah study are not merely religious rituals, but foundations of a religious life. A Jewish man must pray three times a day and study Torah at least once during the day and night. Jews pack into synagogues every day. These activities are not mere obligations; prayer and Torah study are the air we breathe. The rabbis of the Talmud teach that the world is sustained by three things: Torah study, prayer, and acts of kindness.
But our spiritually impoverished society views religious practices as merely cultural expressions. It views religious services as equivalent to yoga classes and book club meetings. It does not see religion as essential, and therefore cannot understand that Jews don’t serve God as part of our lives; rather, we live to serve God.
Neither yoga classes nor book clubs are explicitly protected in the Constitution because they, unlike religion, are lifestyle accoutrements. Religion is something for which we fight to the death, for which pilgrims flee their continent to a new world. We do not undergo martyrdom for a book club. I look at religion and see an essential service. I believe our lives are impoverished when we must close the doors of holiness. But many look at houses of worship closed for months and shrug. So you miss a few services, do it by Zoom. What’s the difference?
Yes, we can pray alone and study Torah on Zoom. And people can protest injustice at home and on Zoom. But private activity differs qualitatively from public communion. During the second-century Hadrianic persecutions, Rabbi Akiva defied the government by gathering students to study Torah publicly. They were risking much, and were ultimately martyred. When a colleague asked Rabbi Akiva why he risked so much for public Torah study, he explained that Jews are like fish, and that Torah is the water without which we cannot survive. Public Torah study is something for which Jews have suffered martyrdom.
If de Blasio and those who represent the secular consensus see protests as more essential than prayer and Torah study, it is not because they value protesting too much. It is because they see religion as nothing more than a personal lifestyle decision. Even as we, please God, recover from this pandemic, the deep fissure it has revealed will not heal on its own. We need to articulate more clearly that religion is the essence of life, the reason the world was created. We must counter the desacralizing attitude in the public square as well as in ourselves and our communities.
Rabbi Gil Student is the editor of TorahMusings.com and Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.