For as long as I can remember I understood that religious observance entailed obligation. When other children were watching Saturday morning cartoons, my family was abstaining from television and participating in prayer services. Despite intense advertising, I never enjoyed a McDonald’s Happy Meal or Lucky Charms cereal. But I learned at an early age that the greatest religious obligation was that of caring for others. To live a life of faith necessitates that one, first and foremost, live.
To live a life of faith necessitates that one, first and foremost, live.
It might have been a heart attack or, perhaps, a terrible fall — the details have blurred in my memory. It was Saturday morning during synagogue services. Not one person had a cellphone, wallet or car keys, let alone a car to drive someone to the hospital. In our community, carrying anything on Shabbat, the holy Sabbath, was considered a form of forbidden work. All pockets were literally empty.
The rabbi acted fast, opening one of the weekday charity boxes and took out a quarter, passing it to someone to use the pay phone in the lobby to call Hatzolah, the Jewish volunteer ambulance service that would typically arrive faster than 911.
I grew up in a Jewish community in Brooklyn, New York, that today would be classified by outsiders as ultra-Orthodox or right-wing Orthodox, but we just thought of ourselves as Jewish. Religious law was the undercurrent of our lives, dictating the food we ate, the clothes we wore, and the days and times when specific prayers would be said. A decommissioned air raid siren would ring through the neighborhood to announce a 10-minute warning before Shabbat would begin, ensuring that no work would happen too close to the sacred day.
On that Shabbat morning, in that moment of crisis, it never crossed my mind for an instant that our rabbi was diminishing the importance of our Sabbath observance or — God forbid — improperly taking money from charity. To the contrary, our Shabbat practice was sacrosanct, and our charity holy, but the obligation to save and protect life overshadowed all.
The obligation to save and protect life overshadowed all.
Today we find ourselves in a very different crisis, and the risk to life is far more severe, and widespread. As coronavirus began to spread rampantly throughout the United States and across the globe, our synagogues, schools and community institutions closed their doors in an attempt to flatten the curve and decrease the rate of infection. In early April, we celebrated Passover, arguably our most widely celebrated and communal holiday, in isolation. Community leadership encouraged families not to visit with one another or welcome guests into their homes to prevent transmission. And now we are preparing for the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, the day we recall standing together at Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, the core of our legal tradition, customarily celebrated by gathering in groups and studying together the entire night. Our early sages teach that the ancient Israelite nation congregated together at the foot of the mountain “as one person with one heart”; this year we recount that story in the silos of our separate spaces.
It is a hardship to be alone, both personally and religiously. But we understand that our faith not only allows for it, it insists upon it to save lives.
For all these reasons, so many in our Jewish community in Missouri were horrified and heartbroken when Gov. Mike Parson indicated back in April that he did not believe that COVID-19 should be considered a valid excuse to vote absentee. We already knew in-person voting carried risk of transmission; we had seen the news reports indicating that Wisconsin had at least 40 people who voted or worked in their recent elections later diagnosed with the coronavirus. The thought that any person would have to risk their health to exercise their right to vote felt simultaneously antithetical to our identities, both as Jews and as Americans.
While the governor might not have initially accepted the pandemic as an excuse for absentee voting, Missouri allows for religious belief or practice as one of the six reasons one may vote absentee. For us the argument could not have been clearer.
The thought that any person would have to risk their health to exercise their right to vote felt simultaneously antithetical to our identities: both as Jews and as Americans.
Working through my organization, the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis, and partnering with the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association and the Rabbinical Association of Greater Kansas City, we began to convene our Jewish clergy. With the early memory of that Shabbat morning in my mind, and the actions of my esteemed rabbi to save one person, I drafted a text for us all to sign rooted in the text that has guided my life since childhood. “The Torah instructs: ‘Neither shall you stand by the blood of your neighbor’ (Leviticus 19:16). When the life of any person is in danger, almost all other religious laws become inapplicable.” With the voices of my teachers resounding in my ears, I wrote: “Our rabbis teach us that to save one life is to save an entire world, and to destroy one life is to destroy an entire world. Indeed, every person has the potential to create a universe and the loss of any person is immeasurable.”
On May 4, we published an open letter with signatures from 37 Jewish religious leaders. The list spanned the geography of the state of Missouri and included voices from every denomination within the Jewish community. The letter stated unequivocally that we “believe therefore that it is a deeply held religious belief to remain home on days in which elections are held and that such a belief qualifies one under the Missouri law to vote in any regional, state, or federal elections via absentee ballot.” (In recent days there has been movement on the part of legislators to somewhat relax these rules. But new regulations have yet to be signed by the governor).
Religious freedom in America of late has been wielded as a political tool. There are those who want to abuse this freedom for personal benefits or selfish interests. There are those who want to claim the religious sphere as the exclusive purview of the right or the left. Yet, religion belongs to neither. It does not dictate a party or a candidate. Religion calls upon us to care for one another. The rest, to paraphrase the great early rabbi, Hillel, is just commentary.
There is nothing about this crisis that is easy or simple. I long for the days when my children can return to playdates with their friends, when I can sit across from a colleague at a café, when my family can take a vacation. But growing up in the Orthodox Jewish community, I learned early in life that my faith tradition was not about what was easy, what was convenient, or even what I wanted for myself. Life in community requires recognition of the needs of the entire community. Those needs are meaningless, though, if one does not first prioritize the importance of life.