Rabbi Joseph A. Skloot, Ph.D., Rabbi Aaron D. Panken Assistant Professor of Modern Jewish Intellectual History at HUC-JIR/New York, shares theological reflections on COVID-19 and social distancing. He writes:
The neighborhood has never looked better. Those fortunate to be uninfected with COVID-19 have spent the last weeks weeding and pruning, repainting and repairing. It is as if the pandemic has unleashed an unstoppable DIY-urge, a compulsion to cross off tasks on the family to-do list. But as days pass, many of us also find ourselves increasingly unsettled by anxious monotony, our old routines upended by an invisible pathogen, unsure of what to do next. We cannot fathom how to fashion new lives of meaning in confinement. We do know that our ability to do so may be key not only to our mental, but also physical survival, and the survival of our neighbors and fellow citizens.
Most of us, are used to measuring our day-to-day success as a function of material and professional productivity: how many meetings taken, how many emails composed, how much code written, how many tables served. “All this,” in the words of the twentieth-century American Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel, “goes on in man’s spatial surroundings.” We "labor for the sake of things of space,” he continues, and "As a result we suffer from a deeply rooted dread of time….”
It goes without saying that the novel coronavirus has radically reduced our, in Heschel’s terms, spatial horizons. We once spent our days traversing timezones and concrete canyons, now we find ourselves confined to our homes, always at six-foot remove from our neighbors. We used to be preoccupied with making, building, buying, transforming, producing—now we are prevented from doing most of the things that brought us satisfaction, not to mention, remuneration. In the face of this radical reorientation, with its calamitous financial implications, if there were ever a time to turn our focus away from “the tyranny of things of space” to “the architecture of time,” now would be it.
Heschel, in his poetic masterpiece, The Sabbath, urges us to reorient ourselves toward the “sanctification of time.” “We have fallen victims to the work of our hands,” Heschel wrote, “it is as if the forces we have conquered have conquered us.” The antidote to this condition is the Sabbath, a day when we abstain from creative labors and fill our hours with simple activities—reflection, prayer, eating and drinking. It is a countercultural practice, measuring our success not by novelty and innovation, but regularity—reciting the same words and invoking the same symbols, week after week.
We find ourselves now in an enforced Sabbath, a Sabbath upon which our lives depend. In the face of this immense challenge, Heschel urges us to embrace the art of ritual repetition—imbuing simple activities and behaviors practiced day after day with meaning.
The American Jewish philosopher Joseph Soloveitchik, Heschel’s contemporary, dismissed both the exercise of human intellect and creative power for their own sake and the mind’s ability to transcend the world in mystic flights of imagination. On the other hand, Soloveitchik extolled the use of the intellect to fulfill the dictates of a normative religious system—halakhah, Jewish religious law. Such a person, he writes, “resembles somewhat the mathematician,” both “gaze at the concrete world from an a priori, ideal standpoint and use a priori categories and concepts which determine from the outset their relationship to the qualitative phenomena they encounter. Both examine empirical reality form the vantage point of the ideal reality.” Put another way, the essential human challenge is to fashion one’s life—always subject to the particularities of one situation and context—in accordance with dictates of an external complex of values.
This way of thinking, of course, runs contrary to our highly individualistic culture that valorizes material wealth and self-actualization above all else. But at a time of immense constraint, when material resources become more and more scare, Soloveitchik’s guidance becomes more and more relevant. To preserve one’s humanity under such constraint, means to measure one’s worth against a different, countercultural complex of values, one that does not tie human dignity and meaning to material or professional success. In such circumstances, time-honored normative systems like halakhah take on especial significance.
The medieval poet and philosopher, Judah Halevi, put the challenge this way:
Servants of time are servants of servants;
only God's servant alone is free.
Therefore, when every human being requests his portion;
my heart says: May God Himself; be my share.
Here, I would argue, Halevi thinks of time differently from Heschel. His “servants of time” are “servants of the times,” slaves to the present with all its troubles and anxieties, slaves to the self and its material aggrandizement. To be a free person is to be God’s servant, in Soloveitchik’s terms, a person whose life is spent actualizing values and virtues dictated by a source of authority outside oneself.
In but a few short days Jews the world over will celebrate Pesah, the festival of the Israelites’ liberation from oppression in Egypt. This year, our ancestors’ confinement will be dramatized by our own, their anxiety for the future will mirror ours, the plagues will seem all the more palpable because of COVID-19. In this context, Halevi aspiration to be a “servant of God” rather than a “servant of time” represents a kind of internal, spiritual liberation, in keeping with the immensity of the physical challenge we face. Our survival in a time of upheaval and isolation, depends not on our ability to cross off entries on our to-do lists, but on our ability to imbue our time with meaning rather than fill space with material achievement. Our minds and our bodies may depend on it.