This past January, while the world was still normal (or, what passes for normal anyway),” I traveled to Poland, for the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp.
There, I was impressed to see New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who had travelled all the way to show his respect. We chatted amiably and it reinforced my view that the Governor is a gentleman and a great friend of the Jewish people.
Fast forward nine months, with the world in the grips of a pandemic, and the Jews and Cuomo are fighting over faith.
— The Hill (@thehill) November 30, 2020
In October the governor passed an ordinance limiting synagogues and other places of religious worship in coronavirus hot zones to just 10 to 25 people, even in synagogues and churches built to house hundreds or even thousands.
The governor’s restrictions proceeded even while no such restrictions were placed on secular outlets like bicycle shops, liquor stores, and acupuncture clinics.
At the time I thought to myself, what is he thinking? Having been at Auschwitz, he knows that for millennia we Jews have died for our faith and held on to our God in every place and under all circumstances. We worshipped even amidst genocide. He’s aware that prayer for us is not a luxury but a necessity, certainly at least as much as buying a bottle of whisky or fixing a tire on a bike.
Moreover, the synagogues had done an outstanding job of insisting on masks and social-distancing for all worshippers, and if you said that only 10 people could pray together – knowing that a quorum of ten men makes a minyan – then you are all but guaranteeing that women will not have a place in the Synagogue.
This couldn’t end well.
Sure enough, the Orthodox Agudath Israel, joined by the Catholic Archdiocese of Brooklyn, sued the state and after some initial legal setbacks, finally and decisively prevailed in the United States Supreme Court, which issued a midnight ruling on the eve of Thanksgiving.
The Agudah lawsuit questioned why Synagogues in “red zones” were limited to 10 per building, while business such as pet shops, financial firms, liquor stores, and other “essential” business were allowed to operate without any restrictions on numbers of employees or customers.
The concurring opinion written by Justice Neil Gorsuch says: “It is time—past time—to make plain that, while the pandemic poses many grave challenges, there is no world in which the Constitution tolerates color-coded executive edicts that reopen liquor stores and bike shops but shutter churches, synagogues, and mosques.”
What Cuomo failed to recognize is that faith is a vaccine for hopelessness and worship an antibody against despair. People need to believe that they’re going to live.
In this pandemic there are some “essential services,” with each of us playing our part, a point I made in discussing the Supreme Court ruling on CNN this week. No one would say that CNN or Fox News or MSNBC producers should not be in studios in order to broadcast the admittedly grim news about the virus. The public needs to know. It’s essential. But just as the media’s job is to inform us about the seriousness of the virus, the role of religion is to tell us that amid the horror show, we’re all going to make it. Yes, we have to be careful, and of course we have to wear masks and social distance. But we’re going to be OK.
Isn’t that what every parent is telling their frightened child right now? Why would we think that rabbis, priests, or imams are any different?
In the Catholic Church the Pope is called Holy Father – a term I myself used though not Catholic – when I had the honor of meeting two Popes, first Benedict XVIII, and then, Pope Francis, one of the great men of our time.
But the Pope’s recent op-ed in the New York Times, where he spoke movingly about how he almost died of flu in the 1950’s and lost half his lung, seemed to be missing this all-important component of promoting faith as the antidote to despair. Indeed, while the Catholic Church was prevailing against the governor in the Supreme Court on the issue of religious liberty, Pope Francis, strangely, was seemingly siding against his own Church.
While the court found that Governor Cuomo’s attempts to limit prayer services to 10 or 25 people was unconstitutional, the Pope was admonishing the faithful to respect all the government restrictions on worship and not complain about them.
But while Pope Francis is an inspiration to people of every faith and no faith, he knows more than most that prayer are religious expression are not just constitutional rights but deep-seated human needs. Not only should communal religious practice not be suspended during the coronavirus, precisely the opposite is true. Faith is the pivotal item that will get us through the pandemic and should be strengthened, safe communal prayer included.
As we all wait for the distribution of a vaccine, it’s worth asking how we got one in the first place. The natural answer would be, scientists and medicine. And no one would imagine suspending medical research during the pandemic because our brave medical professionals and researchers are the ones who will ultimately save everyone’s life with the remedy. But why did our doctors work on a vaccine in the first place? How did they know the disease could be conquered?
To the contrary, the history of humankind is one of incessant decimation at the hands of out-of-control pandemics, like the Bubonic plague that killed more than a third of Europe’s population. But humanity searches for a cure based not on historical precedent but on prophecies in the Hebrew Bible which promised nearly three thousand years ago that pestilence – along with war and killing – will one day be banished from the earth. Without the religious promise made thousands of years ago that God’s hand is guiding history and that history is therefore linear – growing, amid setbacks, ever more brightly by the day – we would be condemned to the vagaries of cyclical history in which nothing improves and we are left in permanent darkness.
Jewish Messianism, which became the foundation of Christianity, the world’s most widespread idea, and deeply influenced Islam, posits that humankind, acting in concert with Godly teaching, is capable of bringing about redemption to the earth. Work on a vaccine because ultimately it will prove successful. Light will triumph over darkness. So God has promised.
It is the Messianic vision of Judaism that inspired the creation of the United Nations which, to their credit, created the Isaiah Wall at their New York headquarters which quotes the prophet as saying that at the end of days nations will beat their swords into ploughshares and no man would teach his son the art of war.
The same prophecies emphasize that disease will be defeated and pestilence eradicated from the earth.
It is a faith that we desperately need.
Governor, are you listening?
Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom the Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the international best-selling author of more than 30 books and is the founder of The World Values Network. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @RabbiShmuley.