Thursday, 09 Sep 2021

Written by Anthony Lazarus Magrill


The culture wars have entered our synagogues! To mask or not to mask? Can everyone come to shul, or only those who stand still, and can be trusted to behave in a Covid-secure manner? [This essay comes out of my recent experience working in Masorti synagogues – although the perceptual gap between Zoomers and Roomers in the UPS follows similar contours.] There are those desperate to return to normality –  who may perceive those mandating masks as victims of a misleading and misled media. There are those who are more cautious – who feel legitimate fear, and even resentment towards those whose cavalier dash towards an old ‘normal’ is putting them in harm’s way. Concern for our physical well-being, which tends to Covid-caution, is legitimate and necessary; but concern for our spiritual well-being, which tends to oppose restrictions, may be equally legitimate. Recent to-ings and fro-ings in public health policy, and the concurrent politicisation of science and research, demonstrate only the stark limits of the knowable. Indeed, they suggest that resorts to ‘the science’ will be inadequate to address current conflicts, which threaten to split our communities down familiar seams of age, class, income and political affiliation.

This week’s Torah portion sheds light on the debate, and in one particular respect which I will discuss here. In every Shemitah year – like that which we will soon enter – the Jewish community should observe a HaKhel. This gathers (almost) the entire Jewish community for a reading of the Torah ‘in order that they should hear, and in order that they should learn, and in order that they should fear the Eternal their G-d’ (Deut 31.13). Crucially, this mitzvah includes v’neihem asher lo yad’u their children who do not know. Even children – little children – are required to attend the HaKhel. But if the HaKhel is about learning and experiencing Torah, why bring along children who cannot learn and who, even, are more likely to disrupt than to contribute? Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya suggests an answer: k’dei liteyn sakhar lim’vi’eihen, in order to bring reward to those who bring them. That is a pragmatic interpretation of the verse: small children cannot be left at home alone – they have to be brought along – and therefore the Torah permits guardians to include them, and even elevates their childcare obligations into a mitzvah. For the Tosfot, this gemara is the basis for the custom to bring children into synagogues – only since they cannot be left to fend for themselves (bChagigah 3a, Tosfot ad loc).

But later commentators firmly disagree. The Ramban argues that children are brought along not only as an inevitability arising from childcare, but because the education opportunity (for children old enough to learn) is itself the mitzvah of HaKhel. They are included in HaKhel in order that ‘they will hear and inquire and the parents will [help them understand] and teach them.’ Sforno learns the verse similarly. The Rambam’s understanding goes even further – including non-verbal children, and those too young to learn at all, because they will be reached by the electric atmosphere and emotionally joined to their community (Guide 3:46). Without bringing children – all children – to HaKhel, community withers. Such is the inescapable implication of the Rambam’s reasoning.

And how do we rule in our own synagogue spaces? Do children come along because their parents cannot leave them at home? Is their presence valued in relation to their ability to participate with decorum, or are even young children included so that they can be slowly accustomed to and affected by the force of the shul’s atmosphere? This question is ever more pressing. Young children are not masked, and nor are they vaccinated; nor are they likely to be soon. Children swarm – and  during times that Covid-19 is dominant in the community (please G-d, not just now) they collect it in their childcare settings, pass it around amongst themselves, and then run their grubby hands along every surface in sight. They are also extremely unlikely to become sick with Covid.

In a basically unpleasant Tablet article, criticising the Covid measures keeping (especially) progressive American synagogue buildings closed, Liel Leibovitz regrets the widespread decision ‘to ask families with children younger than 12 to stay home’. ‘A community that asks its future generation to stay away’, he argues, ‘is telling it that it is nonessential, unneeded, uncounted. Some of these 8- and 9- and 10-year-olds may return next Rosh Hashanah, but without that string in their heart that resonates only when strummed again and again each year.’ I disagree with the tone and the premises of Leibovitz’s argument, but this particular conclusion seems irresistible. Even in his stern ripost to Leibovitz published in the Times of Israel, David M. Glickman admits that: ‘…screen-based Judaism is deadly for our future. In addition to the Covid crisis, we are experiencing a mental health crisis and a spiritual health crisis.’ Glickman laments that our previous education programs have left younger generations ill equipped for current challenges, regretting: ‘that we did not teach enough bar and bat mitzvah students how to blow the shofar so every neighborhood with Jews can experience a safe shofar blowing, [or teach] enough people to lead musaf or to read Torah so that we can offer safe, smaller gatherings around the country.’

But Glickman’s regrets face towards the past. In the here and now, the absence of our future leaders in any shul demands attention. My impression (anecdotal, open to correction) is that the numbers of mask-exempt, and those unable to be vaccinated, are limited enough that they may not dramatically raise transmission. Not so the children. There is no space for them in the Covid-secure synagogue, and they may well go to school rather than face another Yamim Noraim on screen. And in every conversation about the reopening of synagogues over the next year, and perhaps beyond, children will be the problematic subtext – how much risk are we willing to take on for their presence in synagogues? That is the question, no matter how much we attempt to avoid it – seeking recourse either in pikuach nefesh or ‘the science’. Do we rule with Rabbi Elazar – that they come because their parents cannot come without them, and they are only a dispensable backdrop to synagogue services; or do we rule with the Rambam, that their presence is essential, because the service’s function cannot be performed without the messy, disruptive presence of children in the building? I have no answers, but I strongly suspect that there is no Covid-secure synagogue which includes both children and the Covid-cautious, or vulnerable. And balancing the needs of those (overlapping) communities will require respectful, generous and values-based conversation, rather than continued deferral.


Anthony Lazarus Magrill LBC student rabbi

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.