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Shabbat Parashat Shelach 5780

Ask the Rabbi: Psak Halacha during a Modern Pandemic Interim View

Rav Daniel Mann

Question: My own question: What observations can we make about the way halachic rulings were made and disseminated during the first stage of the coronavirus crisis? 


Answer: As a “student of the history of the halachic process,” I find breathtaking the difference in the tools available in reaching halachic rulings and sharing them in today’s society from 200 years ago and even 20 years ago. Let me share my perspective after 2-3 months of observing and sharing in Eretz Hemdah’s participation in the process.

 On the most basic level, “There is nothing new under the sun.” The halachic rules of pikuach nefesh have been discussed in depth for centuries. So have the principles of ruling on standard topics (e.g., Pesach, Shabbat, tefilla) in the face of extenuating circumstances. Our medical emergency and related technical difficulties are only examples of many such circumstances.

However, there were real differences in the process. The local rabbi had almost immediate access to the most updated medical guidelines and insights (although, based on the “surprises” Hashem sent us, much science proved inaccurate only days later – not uncommon for novel viruses). This was crucial when having to apply the halachic rules and Jewish values to specific cases. While a rabbi could and often must ask experts about specific cases that arise, the rabbi/posek’s level of scientific sophistication, both regarding general background and keeping current (or a step ahead when being machmir in pikuach nefesh) concerning COVID-19, is important. If we all made many small but critical decisions about safety in our own houses – when to be health stringent and when it was necessary to “cut a little slack,” a rabbi had a heightened need to be ready for that communally.

The phenomenon of instant collegial contact between large groups of rabbis in which Eretz Hemdah took part (our thanks to Rav R. Taragin) was a powerful tool. A rabbi with a classic “corona question” would present it on a rabbinic group and be sent the latest ruling of Rav Asher Weiss, Rav Rimon, the Chief Rabbinate, etc. within minutes. Pressing questions of this genre (e.g., how to bury a Covid-19 victim, Pesach leniencies, when one can go to the mikveh with which precautions) were presented to such poskim as Rav Schachter and Rav Willig. Rabbis from different areas deliberated in real-time as to whether and then when to follow the bold, life-saving step of the R.C. of Bergen County to close shuls before public authorities mandated it. Many, led by Rabbi Dr. Aaron Glatt, shared insights of their local health authorities. With an understanding of both the shared danger and the unique circumstances of each community, rabbis had both the obligation to follow the consensus when appropriate and seek unique solutions when the nuances of one’s community mandated it.

Of course, as is generally true of information technology, the power contains risks, and raised questions. Will a local rabbi’s authority be undermined when his congregants can find (and disseminate) dissenting (or ostensibly so) opinions online or from a different shul’s electronic bulletin? Might our article in English about strategies for laining as Israeli minyanim opened embolden some distant readers to buck their local guidelines, where even “mirpeset minyanim were forbidden? Or could discussion of the scenario be used incorrectly if matters took a change for the worse in the same place? Broadly speaking, the danger of Torah guidance being misapplied has always existed, but gains outweigh losses when done properly. Accuracy and sensitivity to nuance in writing are important in helping, but not eliminating, the problem.

Clearly, in terms of health, employment, and psychological and social stability, technological advances have been very beneficial during the lockdowns and social distancing that were forced upon us. We have briefly illustrated that regarding implementing timeless halachic principles, we can also say that, to an extent, Hashem has “brought a [partial] treatment before the affliction.”

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