Guidelines for Reopening After the Pandemic
What guidelines should we follow for returning safely to in-person gatherings in our congregations? (Lynn Urbach, Congregation Bet Ha’am, Portland, ME)
We are accustomed to illness, disease, hospitals, and hospices. We and our loved ones suffer and die from any number of frightening illness. But we have tamed or even eliminated almost all the contagious diseases that were a common feature of human existence until the last two or three generations: smallpox, measles, mumps, polio, diphtheria, cholera, bubonic plague, even flu. The prospect of a new and deadly contagious illness is particularly terrifying to many people—perhaps especially to highly educated, affluent, first world residents who are accustomed to being in control of their lives and of their environments.
Now, however, we must face the reality that COVID-19 is here to stay. It is not going to disappear, any more than the flu or the common cold have disappeared. It is good that we know how to reduce the risk of its transmission—high quality masks, frequent handwashing, and social distancing. It is good that health care workers know much more now than they did a year ago about how to treat COVID-19. And it is amazingly good that vaccines give us the means to reduce, almost to zero, the likelihood of an infected person becoming seriously ill. In theory, when enough people are vaccinated, we will attain herd immunity, i.e., the virus will find it extremely difficult (though not impossible) to find new hosts and instances of illness will gradually decrease. However, we do not know whether future variants will be more or less deadly, more or less transmissible. The virus has already mutated, producing more contagious variants, and there is no way to be certain that some future, even more deadly variation, even a vaccine-resistant version, will not emerge. So we must accept the reality that we are living in a different world than we were just over a year ago, because this new disease is a reality that will not disappear. We must figure out how to live with it. We must live with it.
Let us recognize what a difficult moment this is. This t’shuvah will necessarily be somewhat provisional, as we acclimate ourselves to the “new normal.” People are emerging from the depths of the pandemic with a wide range of emotional responses to their experiences of the last sixteen months. There are those who simply want to plunge back into life as it was before COVID-19, and those who will never feel safe going back, no matter what. Scientists and health professionals have learned a tremendous amount about this brand-new disease in an astonishingly short span of time, including how to treat it and how to prevent its spread; yet there is still more to be learned, and there is also the possibility of new variants. The reality is also that some people cannot be safely vaccinated. As of this writing, the COVID-19 vaccines are widely and easily available in the US, but less so in Canada. Federal, state, and local laws regarding masking, social distancing, and vaccine requirements are not uniform. And finally, alas, the politicization of the pandemic has opened the doors to a flood of misinformation and disinformation; congregations trying to establish responsible protocols may have to deal with individual members influenced by this sort of thing.
However, there are some core principles we must articulate, and some guidance that we can offer. In this responsum we address the implications of the new reality of virtual gatherings and the need to balance the public good and the needs and concerns of individuals in reopening. We note that no responsum can possibly speak to the particular dynamics of every individual congregation. All we can do is articulate the guidance our tradition offers, and ask that congregations take it to heart in good faith.
I. Gathering in safety
The vaccine has made it possible for us to move away from the time of acute danger, but we are not yet returning to life as it was before the pandemic. Our tradition offers us some significant guidelines for the “new normal.”
A. Saving life (pikuach nefesh)
While the obligation to save life supersedes all of the mitzvot except the three cardinal transgressions, this should not be understood as some sort of blanket mandate to remain under acute lockdown conditions until absolute safety can be guaranteed for everyone. The Talmud’s classic examples of pikuach nefesh are all acts in response to an acute emergency, such as rescuing a child from drowning, or preparing food on the Sabbath for someone suffering from a potentially fatal illness. Setting ongoing standards for safe public behavior in response to a public health crisis is not, strictly, speaking, pikuach nefesh. For that, we look elsewhere.
B. The danger to life (sakanat nefashot) and the obligation to preserve one’s well-being (sh’mirat haguf)
The Torah commands that anyone building a house must put a parapet around its roof, lest someone fall and die. From this commandment the halachah derives the principle of acting responsibly—both with respect to one’s own life and to that of others—to avoid sakanat nefashot, danger to life. In the words of Maimonides:
It is a positive commandment to remove any obstacle that could pose a danger to life, and to be very careful regarding these matters, as Scripture states: Take utmost care, and guard your lives carefully (Deut. 4:9). If a person leaves a dangerous obstacle and does not remove it, he negates the observance of a positive commandment, and violates the negative commandment, Do not incur bloodguilt (Deut. 22:8).
Our sages forbade many matters because they involve a threat to life. Whenever a person transgresses these guidelines, saying: “I will risk my life, what does this matter to others?” or “I am not careful about these things,” he should be punished by lashes for rebelliousness.
In other words, we are obligated as Jews to avoid causing danger to others. However, Maimonides also emphasized the individual’s responsibility to make every effort to take care of themselves by following sound medical knowledge.
Since maintaining a healthy and sound body is among the ways of God—for one cannot understand or have any knowledge of the Creator, if he is ill—therefore, he must avoid that which harms the body and accustom himself to that which is healthful and helps the body become stronger….
Whoever conducts himself in the ways which we have drawn up, I will guarantee that he will not become ill throughout his life, until he reaches advanced age and dies. He will not need a physician. His body will remain intact and healthy throughout his life.
One may rely [on this guarantee] unless [his body] was impaired from the birth, he was accustomed to one of the harmful habits from birth, or should there be a plague or a drought in the world.
All of these beneficial habits which we have stated apply only to a healthy man. In contrast, a sick person, or one who has a single organ which is not healthy, or one who has followed a harmful way of life for many years, each of these must choose different patterns of behavior in accordance with his [particular] illness as it is explained in the medical literature.
Any change from the conduct which one normally follows is the beginning of sickness.
Where there is no physician available, neither the healthy nor the sick man should budge from all the directions given in this chapter for each of them ultimately brings to a beneficial result.
A twentieth-century authority sums up the matter as follows:
And similarly one should be careful of all things that could put one in danger…. Therefore it is forbidden to walk in a place of danger, such as underneath a tilting wall, or alone at night in an unsafe place. Similarly they prohibited drinking from rivers at night or putting one’s mouth on a pipe while drinking from it, for all these things are potentially dangerous….They also wrote that one should flee the city during a time of plague, God forbid; and one should leave the city at the start of the plague and not at its end, because by then the plague has already strengthened….All these things are [forbidden] because of danger, and one who guards his life (shomer gufo) will keep far from them. It is forbidden to rely on a miracle or to endanger one’s life this way.
Thus we see that we are obligated to take precautions to avoid obvious dangers to others (sakanat nefashot), but we are simultaneously expected to take responsibility for our own safety, health, and well-being (sh’mirat haguf). These are complementary standards of behavior. The obligation to avoid sakanat nefashot is my obligation to ensure that my behavior does not constitute a danger to others; the obligation of sh’mirat haguf is my obligation to preserve my own health and well-being. Collectively we are obligated to avoid behaviors that are obvious dangers to ourselves and to others; individually we are responsible for maintaining our health as best we can.
C. The obligation to seek medical assistance and to use proven medicine (r’fuah b’dukah)
Sh’mirat haguf includes the individual’s obligation to seek proven medical care and to follow proven medical advice. The practice of medicine is more than a skill; it is a mitzvah, as the Talmud and codes make clear.
It is a commandment to heal [i.e., a physician is obligated by law to heal the sick]. This is included in the principle of and you shall restore it to him (Deut. 22:2), meaning restoring even his life. If someone sees that someone is perishing, and they are able to save him, then they must do so, whether by physical exertion, by monetary outlay, or by the knowledge that they possess.
The Torah gave permission to the physician to heal. And it is a commandment.
But if the healer is obligated to heal, the individual is also obligated to seek treatment, and to take it. We may even compel someone to accept a treatment, if it is proven to be efficacious. Indeed, on that basis, this committee decided some years ago that religious schools may require their students to be immunized.
D. Are the COVID-19 vaccines r’fuah b’dukah (proven medicine)?
The vaccines that have been approved for use in the US and Canada are definitely “proven medicine” from a Jewish perspective. For this answer we rely on the extensive and masterful responsum of the Conservative posek Rabbi David Golinkin, adopted in January 2021 by the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. Rabbi Golinkin’s comprehensive survey of rabbinic rulings of the last two centuries reveals a clear consensus that the benefit of a vaccine to millions of people mandates its use as a lifesaving medicine, not to be limited or dispensed with because of a tiny number of adverse reactions. With regard to the original smallpox inoculations, for example, Rabbi Golinkin quotes Rabbi Avraham Nanzig, who wrote in 1785 concerning the one-in-one-thousand who died from the smallpox inoculation, “We do not eliminate such a great benefit for the sake of such a tiny minority.” (Negative reactions to the COVID-19 vaccines are infinitely fewer than one in a thousand.) Rabbi Golinkin’s comprehensive list includes nearly two dozen rabbinic rulings from the last two centuries about the importance of vaccinations, while noting that the current COVID-19 vaccines are more efficacious and more rigorously tested than virtually all the ones addressed in those rulings.
We note that the fact that the vaccines currently have only emergency authorization is irrelevant from the perspective of Jewish law, which is concerned with the vaccines’ tested efficacy and safety, not with the details of government regulations differing between “emergency” and “regular.” In other words, as Rabbi Golinkin’s responsum makes clear, the vaccines are r’fuah b’dukah, “proven medicine,” as our tradition understands the concept.
E. Special Circumstances
The science of COVID-19 is changing even as we write, making it impossible to address all special circumstances. As we are writing (June 2021), for example, the age limit for vaccine approval is moving downward, but there is no vaccine yet approved for all ages. There are individuals who have been vaccinated, but who have a medical condition or a drug regimen that makes it impossible to know whether their vaccine is effective. There are immunocompromised people who cannot be vaccinated. Congregations and Jewish communal institutions will need to take multiple and conflicting priorities into account.
As vaccination rates increase and case rates decrease nationally and regionally, the relative risk of contracting COVID-19 goes down for everyone, including the unvaccinated and immunocompromised. However, circulating viruses of all kinds, including COVID-19, are realities of life. Humans have never lived in a society in which we could guarantee everyone 100% protection from infectious diseases. The obligation to avoid sakanat nefashot means that a Jewish community must avoid reasonable, foreseeable danger. That is what public health guidelines do, and therefore every community must adhere to public health guidelines as a baseline. Individuals with heightened risk of acquiring and/or having significant morbidity from circulating pathogens should adhere to the obligation of sh’mirat haguf—that is, they should seek and follow appropriate medical advice to safeguard their own health given their individual circumstances. We recognize that congregations and other Jewish institutions do not all have the same resources available to invest in technology; nevertheless, congregations should strive to make reasonable accommodations for at-risk individuals on a case-by-case basis, including providing online options wherever possible. We do not want to turn any Jew away from a synagogue; generosity, consideration, and flexibility will be necessary as congregational leadership thinks these questions through beforehand.
II. The meaning and value of kahal
What is a Jewish community?
Prior to the development of the internet, such a question would have made absolutely no sense. Our sense, as Jews, of being part of a single entity—k’lal Yisrael, “the totality of Israel,” was reflected in the aphorism Kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh, “All Israel are responsible for one another.” But as beings grounded in physical reality, those responsibilities always depended primarily on geographical proximity. A Jewish community was all the Jews who lived in some physical proximity to one another. All halachah that governs how a Jewish community should live rests on the presumption that it constitutes the Jews of a particular location, whose proximity makes it possible, pragmatic, and advantageous for them to order their lives as a collective. That communal status entailed certain halachic obligations (e.g., to provide a school) and also facilitated the growth of a huge body of customary law by which Diaspora Jewish communities exercised self-government, to the extent that the ruling authorities allowed them. When Emancipation stripped the k’hilah of its legal status and authority, the Jewish “community” became a voluntary association. More precisely, reflecting the fragmentation of Jewish identity in the modern world, the Jewish “community” became a network of overlapping voluntary associations, with social services tending to be organized along geographical lines (local federations) and religious activity organized according to denominational lines (synagogues). The automobile and the consequent decentralization of modern life also spread people out physically. The reality for many of our congregants is that the people they gather with in synagogue are not the people they live and interact with on a daily basis. Thus the sense of a single Jewish “community,” as automatic as one’s town or city is a “community,” is more fluid and more tenuous than it was even a generation or two ago. (Programs such as Synagogue 2000 were attempts to address the negative consequences of these developments, i.e., the trend among many Jews to see the synagogue as a consumer capitalist provider of services, rather than as a genuine community, i.e., a group of Jews bound to each other as k’lal Yisrael.)
Of course, technologies always existed to link widely dispersed Jewish communities, and people have generally celebrated as travel and communication technologies improved, making it easier to be in touch with those beyond one’s physical reach. But the internet of the last thirty years—an eyeblink in historical time—is a quantum leap beyond anything we have experienced before, enabling real time communication with others literally anywhere in the world. One result has been the emergence of “virtual communities,” i.e., affinity groups where an individual’s need for emotional connection with others—for validation, or for pursuing shared thoughts, ideas, and feelings—are satisfied through online meetings with people in no physical proximity to one another. Most of us have had our lives profoundly enriched by adding these additional human circles to our lives; the darker side, as we know, is that for some people the internet has become a destructive way to disconnect from the people among whom they live.
As we stand at this inflection point, therefore, thinking about how to re-emerge from the isolation of the pandemic, our first obligation is to do no harm to our bonds of physical community. We celebrate the ways in which the internet enabled our synagogue communities to grow and even, in some ways, to thrive during this past year; but we want to think intentionally and carefully about how to use this new technology to strengthen, and not to weaken, our physical communities. Our guiding principle should always be maalin b’kodesh v’ein moridin, “In matters of holiness we increase, rather than decrease.”
A. The virtual minyan
Over a year ago, we decided that the pandemic constituted a shaat had’chak, an emergency, and on that basis we decided to recognize ten people electronically linked visually and audibly as a minyan for the duration of the emergency. The “emergency,” let us recall, consisted of a dangerous new disease that was easily transmissible from person to person through the air, and against which the only possible protection was avoidance of other people. Clearly, we have emerged from the shaat had’chak. What now becomes of our recognition of the virtual minyan?
Interactive video and audio links have enriched our lives in countless ways this past year, as existing platforms like Zoom went mainstream. We were already consumers of streaming media, but now we have learned to be live participants, as we worked from home, kept up with family and friends, taught and attended classes, and found a vast virtual universe of cultural enrichment. It is perfectly natural and normal that our spiritual life should also have extended to virtual space. And without a doubt, the virtual minyan became a vital support, as it was the only way we could gather. Without the internet, our congregations could not have held services this year. Without the internet, many of us would not have been able to enrich and deepen our Jewish lives. Many weekday minyanim grew, for example, because attendees did not have to factor in commuting time. Family and friends who would not have been able to travel to attend in person comforted each other at virtual funerals and shivahs. Attendance grew for shiurim and regular study groups. And now that virtual space has become so normalized, we do not want to retreat from its potential as a vehicle for k’dushah.
Thus we realize that we cannot say—nor do we wish to say—that in the aftermath of the emergency, it is no longer appropriate to hold a virtual minyan. As liberal Jews, we are committed to integrating our Torah with the reality of contemporary life, not bifurcating the two. We recognize the possibility of the “slippery slope;” we do not want to facilitate the fragmentation of local communities, especially small communities, by encouraging individuals to, say, log into a service somewhere in place of supporting their local congregation. Most crucially, we are not ignoring or minimizing the difference between gathering in person and “gathering” in cyberspace. The joy we are all experiencing now as we find ourselves in the physical presence of family, friends, colleagues, and students—as we are able to see each other face to face, and to touch—should be a continual reminder that while virtual connection is a valuable supplement for maintaining community, it can never be the only, or even the primary, vehicle for community.
B. The “hybrid” minyan
What about a so-called “hybrid” gathering, i.e., with some people physically present and others linked via internet? Is this different in any meaningful way from a completely virtual minyan? How should we regard these types of gatherings?
This question may arise now as congregations attempt to meet the needs of individuals who cannot be vaccinated but who wish to participate in the service, perhaps to say Kaddish. Years before the pandemic, when this committee decided not to recognize a virtual minyan, we nevertheless affirmed the ability of virtual attendees to recite Kaddish along with the members of the physically present minyan. As we wrote last year, “We affirm that one who is viewing a livestream should still respond to all the prayers; this is considered the same as having recited them. The same is true for the livestream viewer who recites the words of the Mourners’ Kaddish along with the service leader.”
Our tradition has long emphasized the significance of public prayer, and the difference between a small group of individuals and a congregation. According to halachah, there are elements of the service (d’varim shebik’dushah, “matters that [involve] the holiness [of the divine]”) that can only take place if there is a minyan present. However, as we noted last year:
The CCAR plenum has never taken a stand on whether a minyan is required for public prayer, but its importance has been a given for most Reform rabbis and their congregations. In a 1936 responsum, Jacob Mann advised that “every attempt should be made to have a full minyan,” but allowed congregations to rely on the Palestinian custom of fixing a minyan at six or seven. Many small congregations rely on this responsum. Some congregations of varying sizes disregard the minyan completely. We are not saying now that every Reform congregation must adhere to the requirement of a minyan of ten, but we encourage it, even in small congregations, as a way of bringing the community together.
The collective aspect of prayer is more important than the physical location.
The most acceptable prayer and the greatest mitzvah is to pray in the synagogue with the community (tzibur) … But if it is impossible for him to go to the synagogue, then if he can easily do so, he should gather a minyan in his home, if this is not overly troublesome for him and for the others. But if it is too troublesome, he should pray by himself at home, while making it special by praying at the same time that the congregation is doing so. As for the people who live in small settlements, who do not have a minyan, it is proper that they should pray at the same time as the community is praying in the city….
Obviously, ten people in a room are an in-person minyan; ten people on Zoom are a virtual minyan. But there is some halachic precedent for “hybridity.” Although the old Palestinian practice of a smaller minyan fell by the wayside, and the minyan of ten became the norm, the halachah preserved some flexibility, as evidenced by the references to the practice of counting either a minor or a Torah scroll as the tenth person in a minyan:
Rav Huna said: Nine [individuals] and an Ark [in which there is a Torah scroll] are joined together [to constitute a minyan].
There are those who permit the [elements of the service that require a minyan to be recited] with nine [adults] and one minor joining them, if he is at least six years old and understands to whom they are praying; but the greatest authorities reject this opinion….
Isserles: Even if [the minor] is holding his chumash in his hand, we do not count him. Nevertheless, there are those who are lenient in times of emergency.
We may assume that the Rema knew precisely what he was doing when he chose to include mention of this practice, recognizing that sometimes an exception is needed. For us, if a minyan is not physically present, but worshippers are listening on livestream, it should be a simple matter to ask one or perhaps two of them to turn on audio and video, so that they are virtually present, at least for the d’varim shebik’dushah, in accordance with our earlier responsum on virtual minyan. The halachic exception is limited to one, for the simple reason that one is clearly an exception. Allow more than one, and it is no longer an exceptional situation. (Seven people and three Torah scrolls would be weird; three people and seven Torah scrolls would be an absurd joke.)
Nevertheless, we do not encourage this as a regular practice. The technical definition of a minyan is ten Jews who share the same status, i.e., adults obligated to public prayer. A minyan is a gathering of equals—not only in obligation, but in terms of the interactions among them. As many of us learned over this past year while teaching with some students present and some participating remotely, that sort of “hybridity” was the worst of all possible worlds. Those who were physically present and those who were virtually present were, most assuredly, not equals. The dynamics of the situation—speaking to people in the room and to those on the screen, hearing them, orienting oneself, asking questions, and so forth—were radically different for those whose presence was real and those whose presence was virtual. All-in-person or all-remote “worked” because the relationships and interactions were the same for everyone. “Hybrid” was the worst of all possible worlds, because it was so obviously not a single entity.
For this reason, we do not believe that allowing an occasional virtual tenth to form a minyan will undermine the congregation’s regular in-person worship. We do not worry that individuals will choose to stay home and watch the service rather than show up in person. We believe—based on our own experiences this past year—that when in-person services become the norm again, and the service leaders are directing themselves to the community present in the synagogue, those watching on screens will feel more like observers than participants, more like an audience and less like a congregation, and thus will be motivated to join in person.
On the basis of these considerations, we offer these guidelines for reopening our synagogues and our communities:
- It is a mitzvah to preserve one’s own health and well-being (sh’mirat haguf). The COVID-19 vaccines approved by the CDC (Pfizer, Moderna, and J&J) qualify as r’fuah b’dukah, proven treatment, and it is therefore a mitzvah to get vaccinated unless one has a medical reason that makes it unsafe.
- It is a mitzvah to adhere to standards of safety that avert obvious dangers (sakanat nefashot) to others or to oneself. Jewish tradition has long presumed that recognized medical experts are reliable. For this reason, all congregations should adhere to whatever public health standards apply to their area. Since, in the US, the CDC is the recognized standard in this area, their guidance is preferable to local (e.g., county-level) standards. The community is not obligated to go beyond the standards set by the public health authorities, but of course, it may choose to do so, using whatever procedures (e.g., synagogue board decisions) it ordinarily uses to set communal policy.
- Out of concern for sakanat nefashot, a congregation may choose to require that individuals attending in person show proof of vaccination. If the congregation chooses to do this, they should be as generous as possible in accommodating the needs of those who must remain virtual attendees. The congregation is not required to accommodate the needs of individuals who have chosen not to be vaccinated because of some reason other than medical contraindications.
- We strongly urge our congregations to resume their regular pre-pandemic schedule of in-person services, and to use all-virtual minyanim in ways that enrich and enhance communal prayer and study, not as replacements for face-to-face gatherings.
Joan S. Friedman, Chair
Howard L. Apothaker
Lawrence A. Englander
Audrey R. Korotkin
Rachel S. Mikva
David Z. Vaisberg
Dvora E. Weisberg
 ShA YD 157:1.
 Yoma 84b.
 Deut. 22:8. The Torah assumes structures with flat roofs, of course, which served as upper floors.
 MT H. Retzach U-Sh’mirat HaGuf 11:4–5.
 MT H. De’ot 4:1, 20–22.
 Aruch HaShulchan YD 117:12.
 Maimonides, Commentary on M. N’darim 4:4.
 ShA YD 336:1.
 Magen Avraham to ShA OH 328:10.
 5759.10, “Compulsory Immunization.” Reform Responsa for the 21st Century, Vol. 2.
 CJLS HM 427:8.2021b, “Does halakhah require vaccination against dangerous diseases such as measles, rubella, polio, and Covid-19?” Golinkin vaccination final.pdf (rabbinicalassembly.org), accessed 25 May 2021.
 B. Sh’vuot 39a.
 See https://www.synagoguestudies.org/about/. Accessed 2 June 2021.
 B. Shabbat 21b.
 5772.1. We note also the supporting precedent of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, OḤ 55:15:2001: Wired to the Kadosh Barukh Hu: Minyan via Internet, https://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/sites/default/files/2020-03/ReisnerInternetMinyan.pdf, accessed 15 March 2020.
 See, for example, Avot 3:6; Berakhot 6a-b, 21b; MT H.T’filot u-Virkat Kohanim 8:1.
 B’rachot 21b.
 American Reform Responsa #3: Less Than a Minyan of Ten at Services. There is modern historical precedent for fixing a minyan at six or seven in communities that were unable to muster ten. See the reference to Dubrovnik in Shelach Lecha and Counting Nine for a Minyan (sefaria.org). Accessed 25 May 2021.
 5780.2. See also 5772.1: A Minyan Via the Internet, https://www.ccarnet.org/ccar-responsa/minyan-via-internet/. On the history of the minyan in Reform Judaism and its importance, see “The Minyan” in Mark Washofsky, Jewish Living: A Guide to Contemporary Reform Practice (NY: UAHC Press, 2000), 19–22.
 Aruch HaShulchan OḤ 90:13.
 B’rachot 47b. See also P. Talmud B’rachot 53b.
 ShA OḤ 55:4.