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Screenshot 2020-03-28 16.25.21

(Watch a video version of this message.)

Dear Community Members,

It is with complete disgust and revulsion that we are forced to share with you that in spite of our own Rabbinic Authority’s clear Jewish legal guidance and those of our movement and other rabbinic organizations plus recent medical guidance, there were a number of people who blatantly violated our synagogue’s policy and indeed participated in a rogue worship gathering this past Shabbat. This level of raw chutzpah and dangerous behavior that puts others at risk cannot be tolerated. This type of behavior and the individuals who perpetrated it must be responded to with significant consequences.

That is the first paragraph, slightly edited, from Rabbi Edelman to his South Florida congregation. His message is direct and his language is overly harsh. Obviously. And while it goes without saying that I would never use such language with our community— bear in mind that the role and authority of a rabbi in an Orthodox congregation is vastly different from what we see in the Reform Rabbinate— the rabbi was grappling with a significant problem. He and his rabbinic colleagues had issued clear communal guidelines for how people should behave during this pandemic and members of the community chose to ignore those guidelines. Doing so not only put those individuals at risk but increased the risk to the entire community as well. Their behavior clearly upset Rabbi Edelman and he wasn’t about to hold back in sharing his frustration and concern.

But Rabbi Edelman didn’t stop there. His letter (slightly edited for comprehension) continued:

Those individuals who participated [in this irresponsible behavior] will be stripped of any current positions in our synagogue and denied any form of ritual honors including having an Aliyah, leading worship etc. At a time when the world in general and the community of Israel in particular are confronted with such a dramatic and tragic challenge, it is incumbent on us all to band together and unite behind our rabbinic and medical leadership. We truly hope that this is the last time such a letter must be written.

Stripping communal rights and privileges from those who ignored physical distancing requirements may seem a bit extreme. (I, for one, think it is.) At the same time, however, the subtext of Rabbi Edelman’s message is quite clear and it is an appropriate, albeit harsh, message for this time of year.

When the Israelites first left Egypt they are described as a “mixed multitude.” This not only suggests that non-Israelites may have joined our ancestors in their flight from Egypt but it also suggests that, as they departed Egypt, they were still individuals and not yet a community. That’s why the weeks between Passover and Shavuot are so significant. It was during this time, as they traveled from the shores of the Reed Sea to the foot of Mount Sinai they began to understand their responsibilities to one another. And finally, at Mt Sinai, they entered into the brit- into the covenant- that made them, that made us, a kehillah kedoshah- a holy community. Key to that sense of holiness is our obligation to one another.

Rabbi Edelman’s message was that anyone who disregards the wellbeing of other community members doesn’t understand the meaning of community. Anyone who would place ritual behavior as a higher priority than the health of others has a total misunderstanding of Jewish values. Through their actions, such individuals make clear that they have ignored the teaching from Pirke Avot which states,

הִלֵּל אוֹמֵר: אַל תִּפְרֹשׁ מִן הַצִּבּוּר.

Do not separate yourself from the community.

Pirkei Avot 2:4

The rabbi called out such individuals and effectively said, “If you don’t understand something so basic you aren’t a communal leader.” And while I think his tone was overly crass, I do agree with his point- if ever there were a time when Judaism’s focus on mutual responsibility was needed it is now. And if that holds within our communities, how much more that mutual responsibility extends beyond the (virtual) walls of our congregation.

Shabbat Shalom