I usually enjoy Rabbi Chananya Weissman’s opinion pieces, whether I agree with him or not. His latest article, however – “Herd Immunity or Herd Insanity?” (op-ed, January 1) – sadly misfires.
Rabbi Weissman claims that if you don’t shake hands with others and kiss the Torah in an outdoors minyan, you are a paranoid hypochondriac. He calls avoiding such behaviors insane. He doesn’t deny that Covid-19 is real and dangerous. But he says there are many ways one can die, so why worry about the virus?
This argument, however – as well as some of the other arguments he makes – runs counter to halacha, logic, wise public policy, and mathematics.
During an epidemic we must act differently than during normal times. The Gemara (Bava Kamma 60b) says when a plague comes to a city, one should stay indoors. Later authorities, including the Rema (Yoreh De’ah 116:5), Maharshal (Bava Kamma 6:26), and Maharsha (Bava Kamma 60b), say you should flee a plague initially but if you can’t, you should stay indoors once the plague takes hold. A Jew is supposed to act carefully and remain in safe places – or as safe places as possible – during an epidemic.
We find such health advice in other areas of halacha as well. For example, poskim discuss whether a person may endanger himself to fulfill the mitzvah of visiting the sick (bikur cholim) if the ill person is highly contagious. The author of Bikur Cholim BeHalachah UveAggadah (ch. 10, n. 18) posed this question to Rav Nissim Karelitz and Rav Chaim Kanievsky, both of whom responded that it’s forbidden (see also Tzitz Eliezer 9:17 ch. 5:4.)
Rav Nissim Karelitz points out – as did Rabbi Weissman – that tzadikim in the past have cared for people with contagious diseases, but he says you may only follow their example if you have a special promise from a tzaddik that you won’t be harmed. Otherwise, it’s forbidden.
Similarly, contemporary poskim rule that one shouldn’t visit someone who’s sick with Covid-19. Instead, reach out to him or her by phone or electronically (Rav Asher Weiss, Minchas Asher on Corona, vol. 3 no. 6; Rav Dr. Avraham Steinberg, The Coronavirus Pandemic 2019-20: Historical, Medical and Halakhic Perspectives, section 4; both available at KolCorona.com/halachot).
In terms of logic and public policy, Rabbi Weissman confusingly discusses precautions and lockdowns as if they were one and the same. Precautions include wearing a mask, maintaining one’s distance from others, avoiding closed areas with limited air circulation, washing one’s hands with soap, etc. These don’t directly cause economic hardship. Stores, restaurants, schools, and shuls can remain open with these precautions in place. People can maintain a distance from the ba’al keri’ah. Students can wear masks.
In contrast to precautions, lockdowns forces businesses to close, and extended lockdowns cause tremendous economic hardship. They also lead to loneliness and depression – and other medical and psychological issues – especially among the most vulnerable. There are real costs to lockdowns, which we don’t see discussed enough by the politicians and doctors making public policy.
But you can oppose lockdowns while supporting precautions such as mask-wearing and social-distancing. To criticize people who choose not to kiss a Sefer Torah by claiming it causes economic hardship is to engage in faulty logic. Furthermore, incorrectly connecting precautions and lockdowns – or linking unrelated precautions – can lead people to adopt a dangerous all-or-nothing attitude.
Encouraging such an attitude is bad public policy and also bad math. When I speak of bad math, I mean that it unwisely combines risks and causes false confidence. All of us live our lives as normally as possible while minimizing risks. We don’t throw caution to the wind and say that since you can theoretically get a cancer diagnosis tomorrow, you might as well run into incoming traffic.
At the same time, we don’t allow life’s risks to paralyze us with fear. Instead, we intuitively think mathematically in order to minimize our risk while going about our normal lives. During a pandemic, though, we must rebalance our behavior to account for the additional risks.
If you engage in one behavior that carries a 10 percent risk, your chance of being safe is 90 percent. That seems pretty good. But if you engage in two independent behaviors – each of which carries a 10 percent risk – you are down to a safety level of 81 percent. Three such behaviors bring you down to 72 percent, and so on and so forth.
I don’t know that we can quantify the risk of everything we do, and many actions have a much lower risk factor than 10 percent, but we can still use this kind of thinking to inform our actions. Every independent risk we take increases our chance of infection, so we must minimize our risk to keep our chances of remaining healthy high.
If your children attend yeshiva – as mine do – you have a big risk in your life. In order to achieve some sort of balance, I reduce my risk in other areas as much as possible by, for example, avoiding crowds and unnecessary interaction.
Some people need more personal interaction. They should look elsewhere for ways to reduce their risk. Everyone has to find his or her own balance based on his or her unique needs while recognizing that risks that are even only somewhat independent combine quickly.
However, most actions in shul are not independent, and that raises the possibility of false confidence. If nobody with Covid-19 is in shul, everyone in theory can shake hands and do whatever they want without concern. And most of the time, that’s the case.
However, if we cut corners on this or that precaution and nothing bad happens, we gain false confidence. Eventually we cut all the corners and observe almost no precautions at all. Even then, most of the time, we will be fine. Until that one time when someone with Covid-19 unwittingly comes to shul and there is an outbreak.
I have personally seen this happen. I have seen fine people put out of commission for weeks because they cut corners, gained false confidence, and ultimately caught the virus.
It’s a mistake to be concerned only with the mortality rate of Covid-19. Every death is tragic but more common than dying from the virus is contracting it and feeling too sick to function for one or more weeks. A person in this situation is classified as a choleh she’ein bo sakanah, someone sick but not deathly ill, for whom we may violate rabbinic prohibitions on Shabbos. Because of the possibility of the person’s condition deteriorating, we may even sometimes violate biblical prohibitions depending on the circumstances (ask your rabbi).
The possibility that young healthy people who contract Covid-19 will become sick and bedridden for days or weeks is very real. We must therefore take basic precautions to avoid this outcome. The illness is highly contagious, but it’s also preventable.
While so many things could have gone wrong in the development and testing of Covid-19 vaccines, Hashem has blessed us with two successful vaccines and more coming soon. The pandemic is almost over. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 92b) relates that some members of the tribe of Ephraim attempted to leave Egypt 30 years before the time of the Exodus. Their impatience led to their deaths.
Those of us who don’t have antibodies and are still unvaccinated must remain cautious. If we avoid the impatience of some of the tribe of Ephraim, we will with Hashem’s help remain healthy and productive throughout the remainder of this dangerous time period and then share simchos together once again as we did in times past.