As a medical professional, I am unequivocally in favor of people wearing masks, but purely as a regular Jew who was witness to a cringeworthy mask incident, I would like to address Rabbi Michoel Green’s assertion in last week’s paper that “chillul Hashem is not a factor here since there is no objective value that obligates a Jew to wear a mask.”
Last Wednesday morning, I went to Stop & Shop to stock up for the week. At 8:22 a.m. there weren’t many people in the store – just 10 customers, two cashiers, and three people stocking shelves. Out of the 10 customers, six were overtly Jewish: two yarmulka-clad men and four women including myself in skirts with their hair obviously covered.
Everyone in the store was masked as per Executive Order 122 in New Jersey requiring mask-wearing indoors.
I rounded the corner from the cookie aisle into the dairy section and, as I was pondering the expiration dates on the milk cartons and making small talk with the guy unloading the yogurt, a man came down the parallel aisle, stopped for a long second in front of us, and then proceeded to go down the kosher aisle.
With his velvet yarmulke and peyos, he looked generically familiar to me, but something indefinable about him looked odd, off-kilter. With dawning dismay, I realized it was because not only was he not wearing a mask, he wasn’t even making an attempt to wear one. There was no mask dangling under his chin unused, ready to be flipped up as needed. It was unabashedly absent.
The store employee two feet away unpacking the pudding looked at the yogurt guy and – with unmitigated disgust – said “Why don’t those [expletive deleted] Jews wear their [expletive deleted] masks?”
I was shocked – but also not shocked. I had seen the vitriol spewed online blaming Jews in south Jersey for the uptick in Covid cases, but to hear it up close and personal was revolting and – quite frankly – scary. It didn’t matter that I was wearing a mask. It didn’t matter that every other Jew in the store was wearing a mask. It doesn’t even matter if every other Jew he sees for the next month will be wearing a mask. We are all tainted.
As Jews, we are instructed to be an “or la’goyim,” a light unto the nations. It’s our responsibility to set a good example, to act in a way that not only prevents a chillul Hashem, but creates a kiddush Hashem. Among ourselves we can debate the merits of wearing a mask, but ultimately it’s irrelevant. Because the definition of chillul Hashem has to do with perception.
Wearing a mask is seen as proper behavior for a considerate member of society. It means you care about what happens, both in the world at large as well as to individuals you come in contact with. Not wearing a mask implies the opposite.
We don’t get to decide what constitutes a chillul Hashem – it gets decided for us.