Wearing a mask should be a Jewish tradition

Why mark the historical plague of the Talmud while ignoring the one afflicting us now, writes Miriam Shaviv


Young teenager wearing a face mask whilst site seeing on a city break holiday. Taken in London in the UK. COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

March 04, 2021 17:26

In 2017, the Anne Frank House told an employee who tried to wear his yarmulke to work to hide it under a baseball cap. It took six months of deliberation until they finally reversed course.

How was it possible that the guardians of Anne Frank’s legacy had asked a Jew to hide his own identity? Did they not see the irony? Author Dara Horn gave her answer in a famous 2018 essay: “People love dead Jews. Living Jews, not so much.”

Her thesis was that Frank’s enduring appeal is precisely that she didn’t live. So she never outgrew her youthful, idealistic belief in the goodness of other people and never tried to hold Europeans to account for the Holocaust — unlike many survivors, whose dark accusations were harder to hear.

Westerners love her upbeat message because it lets their society off the hook. By embracing Frank, they get to believe in their own moral righteousness and feel good about themselves, without facing uncomfortable questions. Back in their day-to-day lives, reality is more challenging and complex — and here they risk failing.

Unfortunately, in recent years, we’ve seen too many people who love dead Jews, and living Jews, not so much. There’s been no end of antisemites and their fellow-travellers who have no problem with commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day or who revere our Jewish socialist grandparents, but would rather like to see Israel wiped off the map.

They, too, use dead Jews to feel that they are on the side of the angels, while persecuting and hurting modern Jews.

It’s easy to sneer at — and many on social media and the press have. But as we approach the second Covid Pesach, we have to ask: Are we really so different? Do too many in our community not make the exact same mistake of using our own history to feel good about ourselves, while learning none of the lessons?

At the end of this month, we’re going to be starting Sefirat Ha’Omer — the counting of the Omer. During much of this period, traditional Jews take on some signs of mourning, like not cutting their hair or holding weddings.

The true reasons for this custom are disputed. It may very well have become entrenched during the Crusades, when flourishing communities in Europe were destroyed. But there is a strongly held tradition, originating in the Talmud, that it commemorates a plague that struck 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva because of their lack of respect for each other.

This is not some obscure passage. Jewish children learn this routinely and many readers will have nodded along approvingly as their pulpit rabbi railed against the selfishness of Rabbi Akiva’s students. We would never behave like that! Meanwhile, the Omer restrictions are widely observed in the Orthodox community.

How is it possible, then, that some of the same people meticulously marking this historical plague seem intent on ignoring the modern plague that is happening right now?

And not only ignoring it by risking their own health and lives — but actively putting others at risk, refusing to wear masks or social distance in synagogues and in shops, and holding large, illegal weddings?

If anything exemplifies a modern lack of respect to our fellow human beings and fellow Jews, this is it.

I’m referring to some members of the strictly Orthodox community, whose rates of Covid infection in the UK and elsewhere have been astronomically high as a result. But not just them. In kosher shops, at least, offenders come in all denominations and all shades of Orthodox.

I’ve personally witnessed a masked customer asking the unmasked woman behind her to keep more of a distance, only to be told that “If God wants you to get corona, there’s nothing you can do”.

A yelling match ensued.

If the unmasked lady piously counts the Omer each night, I daresay the contradiction won’t occur to her.

It’s easier to come down on the right side of moral dilemmas which are distant and theoretical — safely in the past —than to make good moral choices in the here and now. But that’s not an excuse for the Anne Frank House or for the anti-Zionists. Nor is it an excuse for our fellow Jews.

So if you’re planning to keep the Omer this year, mask up where you are legally obliged to and keep your social distance.

Otherwise you are simply desecrating the memory of those you are supposedly commemorating. You can’t have it both ways.

March 04, 2021 17:26

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