Title: The Coronavirus Pandemic: Historical, Medical, and Halachic Perspectives
Rabbi Avraham Steinberg
Among the dozens of recent publications on the coronavirus and Jewish law, few if any of them were written by someone as qualified as Rabbi Dr. Avraham Steinberg. As a certified pediatric neurologist, the medical ethics director of one of Jerusalem’s best-known hospitals, lead editor of the Encyclopedia Talmudit, and the author of over 200 books and articles on medical ethics and halacha, there is no better person to write The Coronavirus Pandemic: Historical, Medical, and Halachic Perspectives.” In this relatively short book, published together with an English translation by Dr. Ari Ciment, Rabbi Dr. Steinberg brings his extensive knowledge and experience to bear on the Covid-19 pandemic, providing crucial historical, medial and halachic perspectives that live up to the book’s subtitle.
Pandemics and even epidemics (localized disease outbreaks) have become increasingly rare over the past century, thank G-d, with the result that many people have become panicked or frightened by what they believe to be “unprecedented times.” The framework that Steinberg provides in this book, however, shows how plagues have always been part of human history, and there are plenty of halachic precedents for responding accordingly, from the Talmud to Rabbi Akiva Eiger.
The English section of the book is supplemented by the riveting first-person account of Dr. Ciment as a critical care physician during the first months of the Covid-19 pandemic, which reads like a fast-paced television drama but is suffused with the trust in G-d that has sustained the Jewish people throughout all their historic tribulations. Taken as a whole, the book is a magnificent testament to how the Torah guides the Jewish people even in these trying circumstances.
Dr. Steinberg’s wealth of medical and halachic knowledge is encyclopedic, considering that he has authored several encyclopedias, and this book reads as one extensive entry with all the lucidity and organizational coherence of a typical encyclopedia article. In his introduction, the author describes the book (or booklet, “kuntres,” as he refers to it) as a mere review of opinions, with no intention to present any novel arguments or break new ground. Instead, he relies on other contemporary rabbinic authorities who have issued halachic rulings during the Covid-19 pandemic. As a graduate of Yeshiva University, I was personally gratified to see Rabbi Hershel Schachter quoted at least as frequently as Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, Rabbi Osher Weiss, and Rabbi Yitzhak Zilberstein.
The encyclopedia-entry style has some inherent drawbacks, as a review article will necessarily sacrifice comprehensiveness and complexity for clarity. The footnotes will often lead the reader to other works of Dr. Stenberg’s that might touch upon salient issues in greater detail, but it is slightly disappointing to see that some issues particularly relevant to the book’s central topic (such as the halachic definition of a “plague” or the question of vaccinations) are treated in the course of a single page. Much of the book is devoted to navigating the day-to-day (and holiday) ritual practices in light of public health concerns unique to a pandemic, but a considerable amount of attention is also given to how to triage patients when hospitals are at or over capacity.
Unfortunately, the book is also short on Torah-related guidance for how to balance public health during a pandemic against both religious obligations and the general demands and pleasures of daily life. This area has been (and continues to be) the source of significant controversy both among the general public and, unfortunately, among our Jewish brethren, but Dr. Steinberg has little to say on the topic beyond referencing the general obligations to guard one’s health and to obey governmental authorities.
Further questions abound: What if health officials publish guidelines that are not legally mandated; must these be followed? What if the vast majority of citizens are not abiding by those guidelines anyway? Does the Torah ever require safeguarding one’s health beyond what is suggested by governmental bodies? What if local health ordinances contradict national ones, and should the positions of international health organizations also be taken into consideration? What if the reasoning provided by health officials can be demonstrated to be erroneous or inapplicable? What about following private doctors or health experts – should one adhere to the advice of the greatest expert, or to the majority of experts, or to one’s more local expert, and how is expertise to be defined in this context? Perhaps most importantly, does halacha have anything to say about what factors should be weighed by the public health officials themselves in establishing these guidelines?
None of these questions are raised in the main section of the book, which appears in both Hebrew and English, but the final English section includes a few questions posed by Dr. Ciment to Rabbi Dr. Steinberg that bear upon these issues. In this context, Dr. Steinberg responds that while “every doctor is entitled to present their position,” one must be exceptionally wary of the prohibition of machloket, of fighting and factionalism. In the Hebrew and English introductions, the author devotes several pages to emphasizing the prohibition of machloket. At first glance, this might seem like an odd prohibition to discuss in a book about halachot relating to pandemics, but anyone who has lived through the pandemic knows all too well how differences of opinion can lead to violations of this grave sin. One can only hope that by utilizing the Torah perspective so expertly provided in this book, such differences of opinion can be contextualized and discussed as a machloket “for the sake of Heaven” and an honest search for truth instead of being a source for strife. By increasing respect for one another through sincere Torah dialogue, we hope and pray that both infectious diseases and pernicious machloket will be things of the past.