As we stand now, some 14 months from the outbreak of the COVID pandemic, it is worth reflecting on some of the more salient religious discussions that were taking place in the scary early days of the pandemic. As life was disrupted and people were unsure how to go about their lives, religious and otherwise, many turned to rabbis. Much literature (including several sefarim) has been produced on various halakhic issues that emerged at that time. While sophisticated theological discussions have been far less extensive, it is worth reflecting on one discussion, partially exposed and partially beneath the surface, that took place in the months of March and April 2020.
That discussion pertains to the overall religious sensibility with which one is bidden to respond to COVID-19, especially as it was at its height. Aside from taking safety precautions, how should one relate to God in a world of COVID? Should one preserve normalcy to whatever extent possible or should one instead embrace the sense of crisis and channel it in one’s religious devotion?
I believe that different religious leaders, some explicitly and some less so, advised the adoption of one or the other of these approaches. This essay will draw both from a programmatic theological essay and from several other treatments of the issue that are less direct in their theological leanings but reveal a clear sensibility in that direction. It will analyze rabbinic approaches from America and Israel that can be categorized as Modern Orthodox, Dati Leumi, and/or moderate Haredi. Furthermore, the period a year ago during which these discussions took place – the abrupt shift from Nissan’s celebration to sefirah’s mourning will be especially helpful in bringing to light the practical ramifications of these theologies.
Rav Mosheh Lichtenstein’s Theological Approach
The most explicit treatment of the question of the appropriate theological response to COVID was presented by Rav Mosheh Lichtenstein, Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshivat Har Etzion, on March 27, 2020, during the early days of the pandemic. It was originally sent to Yeshiva students and alumni, and is published here (in English translation from the original Hebrew) at The Lehrhaus for the first time. The essay is worth reading and analyzing in great detail; for the purposes of this essay, however, we will quickly summarize the essay and turn to one of its larger questions.
R. Mosheh presents a dichotomy between two types of prayer – prayer out of a sense of normalcy and prayer out of crisis. Drawing upon his grandfather, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s theology, R. Mosheh notes the difference between appealing to God in nature and appealing to God against nature. While the first is channeled in the first blessing of Shemoneh Esrei and Tractate Berakhot, the latter appears in the second blessing of Shemoneh Esrei (on revivification of the dead) and Tractate Ta’anit. Under normal circumstances, (and especially in the modern era,) where nature is our friend, it is appropriate to call out to God as functioning within nature. In a pandemic, however, where nature itself is the source of the greatest danger, one must cry out to God out of a sense of crisis. One beseeches God to override the natural order rather than to serve our needs within it.
This approach, R. Mosheh emphasizes, has major ramifications in terms of the way in which people should pray in a situation of acute crisis, as well as for a variety of other ritual issues. On that point he writes as follows:
In light of this analysis, the ramifications on the policy of psak must be determined as well. One of the primary approaches to current halakhic questions attempts to maintain a familiar routine to whatever extent possible, and is willing to be lenient to achieve this end… Familiar routine is a comfort; but when the world order has turned upside down, the objective should not be to seek calm or comfort, but rather to face reality, and understand that our relationship with the world around us has shifted. We must recognize the crisis and make the necessary spiritual adjustments… The aspiration to execute a halakhic policy which strives to maintain routine is not a question relating to a specific halakhic detail, nor is it a general question of leniency or stringency in policy, but rather a fundamental question of whether the crisis should be acknowledged, and the aspiration to return to that which is familiar and routine abandoned. The world is changed, and this must be acknowledged.
Halakhic policy must reflect the crisis of the moment, in order that people can “recognize the crisis and make the necessary spiritual adjustments.” Maintaining a familiar routine (absent cases of particular need) should not be the goal. The facts on the ground dictate that the world has changed; it would be an affront to God to ignore this reality in the interests of greater cohesion.
There are several important points in this account of Coronavirus. It insists on a human reaction that takes the crisis seriously, which will have implications below. It focuses both on the fact that humanity is uncommonly fighting against nature and the phenomenon of greater isolation. It draws on theological views of Rabbi Soloveitchik in insisting that this requires a distinct liturgical response. It points to the risk of overlooking the crisis and cautions against it, as well.
This diagnosis of the spiritual significance of the COVID pandemic is valuable in itself, and worth considering both on its own experiential terms, and also as it relates to Rabbi Soloveitchik’s theologies of technology and of prayer. However, it also has more pointed applications in the halakhic realm. Various ritual (and other) matters of Jewish law stand to see a very different application if treated under this theology and its attendant meta-Halakhah rather than an alternate one. Below, we will consider some of these ramifications, both within R. Mosheh’s approach and within alternate approaches that preserve a different theological understanding.
The Importance of Retaining Normalcy
The position of R. Mosheh, while well-developed, was not the primary position taken in response to the early stages of COVID. The majority practice, at least among American synagogues, was generally to do whatever possible to retain a sense of spiritual normalcy and routine amid the pandemic. This manifested itself in several different ways. To give perhaps the best example, many synagogues held pseudo-minyanim over Zoom, even though they generally did not think this actually counts as a minyan. One of the main benefits of this practice is the sense of consistent synagogue-like interaction in the lives of the congregants. While there have been calls for increased tefillah in a general sense, and daily Tehillim recitations, there have not generally been calls to qualitatively rethink the nature of prayer or one’s spiritual existence, nor have there been accounts of how this pandemic differs from other crises.
This seems to constitute a position focused on maintaining normalcy in difficult situations. One can note several reasons that underlie or support this position. At one level, there is certainly a value to routine, not only because it provides comfort, but also because it provides structure and aids people’s functioning in difficult times. This is noteworthy in itself, but it is especially important against the backdrop of the mental health crisis precipitated by COVID that has affected so many. Additionally, there is the more specific concern about religious experience. While there may be advantages to embracing the isolation of the pandemic and calling out to God from isolation, there is also a logic to maintaining spiritual practices of normalcy and applying them in this difficult time. Furthermore, looking ahead to a time following the crisis, there is the value of maintaining schedules and commitments going forward, when it comes time to return to the synagogue. We are starting to feel the ramifications of this today, as more and more people are returning to regular prayer. For that reason, there has been a general trend to minimize divergences from standard practice and to make religious life hew to usual structures as much as possible, even as life has become ever so unusual.
To illustrate this point, it is instructive to consider a letter that Rabbi Yaakov Taubes of the Mount Sinai Jewish Center sent to his community on March 27, 2020, less than two weeks before Pesah:
Over the past few weeks, as the situation in the world has worsened and the extent of our new reality began to set in, many have tried to find meaning in the chaos… For many of us, finding Hashem [in] these extraordinary times has gotten harder not easier. Without our Shul, our friends, indeed without everything that helps [make] a religious life worth pursuing for so many, connecting to Him has [become] more difficult. Davening at home, observing Shabbos without community, not seeing anyone – these can be impediments to achieving and enhancing proper Yiras Shamayim…The lack of stability and the unknown about how long this will all last can be so incredibly stressful and… many of us are not looking upward to Shamayim, but downward at our phones. This past Thursday was Rosh Chodesh Nissan, the beginning of the month of redemption, and often most importantly for many who are used to being in a rush in the morning, the beginning of a month with no recitation of tachanun. When Rav Hershel Schachter, Shlita, was asked about whether we should perhaps say tachanun during Nissan this year in light of the troubling times in which we find ourselves, he replied that the reason tachanun is omitted is that we are commemorating the redemption which our ancestors experienced from Egypt and projecting forward to the future redemption, which Chazal say will also take place in some form at this time. The significance of these ideas remains in place, despite everything going on at present… Our world has been turned upside down, but it nonetheless is time to get ready for Pesach and that is what we are going to do…
The letter notes the challenge of facing a chaotic world lacking structure, which both creates a personal challenge and a difficulty of connecting to God rather than to news and other this-worldly sources. Taubes’ solution to this challenge is to focus not on the timely challenge but on the timeless redemption celebrated on Pesah. The ritual marking of Nissan as a time of joyful redemption and thus not a time for the anguish-ridden prayer of tahanun should therefore be applied as normal, reaffirming both God’s capacity to redeem and the maintaining of ritual matters as per usual.
There are thus two essentially opposite views on how best to respond to the crisis of the pandemic. Should one emphasize the uniqueness of the current moment and look to shift religious practice and experience where possible – a perspective of Coronavirus Exceptionalism? Or should one rather be a Coronavirus Normalizer, seeking to minimize the divergences and emphasize continuity with spiritual life in general? This important debate will have ramifications on several different planes.
The Debate Over Tahanun in Nissan
R. Taubes noted the view of R. Hershel Schachter regarding the skipping of tahanun during this year’s Nissan, a view that is worth considering more directly. Moreover, the general approach towards Coronavirus Normalization might be seen in a series of halakhic decisions offered by Rabbi Schachter, adopted and applied to the synagogue context by a broad spectrum of American Centrist Orthodox rabbis.
R. Schachter’s view not to recite tahanun was publicized, along with a directive to cease reciting Avinu Malkeinu. With the onset of the crisis, many had called for adding Avinu Malkeinu to their prayers, either the classical litany of Avinu Malkeinu requests beseeching redemption from God following the Amidah, or, alternatively, a one-line insertion into the blessing of Shema Koleinu requesting an end to the current plague. R. Schachter ruled that these somber additions were all to cease with the onset of the redemptive month of Nissan, as they would in a usual year.
This view was disputed by several others, among them R. Mosheh himself. In a March 29 e-mail, part of a rabbinic discussion as to how to proceed on this issue, he wrote:
I am definitely of the opinion that one should continue to say Avinu Malkenu and Tahanun in hodesh Nissan as well and I personally do so. Although there is a compelling halakhic case for this, that is not the main reason. The real reason is that there is a compelling religious and emotional need to do so. If in times like this we don’t cry out to the KBH, then when should we do so?
For R. Mosheh, if there is ever a time to call out to God, it is in the midst of a pandemic. Maintaining the usual rules of avoiding mourning during Nissan would be inappropriate in a time of great crisis. He also noted halakhic precedents for this. Ta’anit chapter 3 discusses scenarios of national crisis (especially drought) where the community would fast and possibly even blow the shofar on Shabbat in order to facilitate the prayer of et tzarah necessitated by the difficulties of the time. If clear expressions of mourning are allowed on Shabbat in times of crisis, that should certainly be allowed for the lesser celebration of the month of Nissan.
Furthermore, he ties some of his theological reflections on the obligation of prayer to this issue, arguing that in times of crisis there is not only the usual obligation of prayer but a special obligation of prayer based on crisis that actually is a higher grade, biblical requirement. One who prays as if all is normal and does not engage with the pathos and crisis of the moment may have fulfilled the usual, rabbinic obligation of prayer but fails to succeed in the biblical requirement of a prayer out of crisis. This approach likely draws upon the theological and halakhic reading of the Rambam and Ramban offered by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Rav Mosheh’s grandfather.
R. Mosheh goes a step further, diagnosing and condemning the (unattributed) view of those who believe it is best to not recite Avinu Malkeinu during Nissan. He even takes on the suggestion of the Israeli Rabbinate to fast a half-day rather than a whole day, seeing it as an attempt to minimize the significance of the moment:
I believe that there is an emotional and religious unwillingness to admit the true extent of the crisis and to behave accordingly and that this creates a very unhealthy disconnect bet[ween] our medical and practical behaviour and our religious awareness. All the attempts to seek the positive and to emphasize the normal can only be legitimate if they follow a deep and sincere recognition of our situation as a crisis rather than attempting to ward it off or paper it over. In light of this, I am afraid that fasting half a day, not saying Avinu Malkeinu in Nissan (if you said it before) etc. may be a form of denial of the extent of the current crisis or may encourage such a denial.
This powerful critique stems directly from R. Mosheh’s theological approach to COVID, that the crisis and isolation should be leaned into and taken seriously by offering prayer born of crisis, rather than minimized by maintaining a business-as-usual attitude. Interestingly, it would seem that the ultra-conservative Eidah HaHareidit in Jerusalem agreed with him on this issue, as their guidance, also published early in Nissan 5780, recommended the recitation of Avinu Malkeinu as well.
It is worth noting that R. Mosheh’s position here is consistent with his position on the phenomenon of public prayer and fasting for droughts, rituals which have routinely taken place in Israel in past decades. R. Mosheh has publicized his position in opposition to these fasts, on the grounds that there is no true crisis, as there is full and continuous access to water during the so-called crisis. Viewing his treatment of that issue in light of this one, what emerges is neither a pro-fasting or anti-fasting position, but rather a more nuanced stance: whether or not one declares a state of religious emergency, entailing fasts and special prayer, should rely not on formalized categories of crisis (“the mishnah says that one should fast following a drought”) but rather on the lived experience of crisis, taking a realist perspective as to what qualifies as danger. If people are actually dying, or lack access to basic goods, that is reason to shift one’s mode of prayer. This existentialist position on prayer as part of one’s relation to God, extending beyond a formalist halakhic approach and considering the experience of the individual praying, has some deep connections to the philosophy of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.
Empty Invitations: The Debate Over Kol Dikhfin
This debate over how to experience the joy of Nissan relates to another dispute over how to approach the invitation kol dikhfin yeitei ve-yeikhol, “all who are hungry may come and eat,” (part of ha lahma anya) where the host of the Seder renders an invitation to all wayfarers at the outset of the Haggadah’s recitation. In a time of social distancing and even lockdown, is there logic to reciting this empty and even false invitation? Rabbis offered divergent views on this issue in advance of Pesah 5780.
R. Hershel Schachter encouraged the recitation of the prayer as usual, applying the following logic:
At the beginning of the Pesach Seder, we invite all impoverished people to join us for the meal (ha’lachma anya). Although one would surely not allow guests into his home during this dangerous time, these words should still be recited at the start of the Seder. The reason we announce this invitation is in remembrance of the practice when the Beis HaMikdash stood. Then, Jews would invite anyone to join them in eating the Korban Pesach. Our recitation of these words today, is not meant as a true invitation, as is clear from the fact that we don’t open the doors and announce it in the streets for guests to hear. After the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash, there was an additional prayer added, that we return to the land of Eretz Yisrael. It is recommended to explain this to those at the table before reciting this paragraph.
This position makes two assumptions. First is that the invitation rendered by ha lahma anya is never a genuine invitation, as is demonstrated by the fact that it is recited as a formula rather than publicized to the relevant parties. Possibly more relevant is the secondary assumption regarding how that formulaic line should be applied, understood, and publicized this year. R. Schachter suggests explaining to Seder attendees that this line is a mere artifact, which is reasonable enough, but essentially does not treat this year as differently from any other. In fact, it emphasizes the fact that this year’s kol dikhfin is no more an empty invitation than any other year.
However, some have suggested that, this year, even as one recites the full text of ha lahma including its invitation, there is reason to introduce additional messaging that speaks to the current crisis. Rabbis David Block and Yitzchak Etshalom, both educators at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, have written in these virtual pages to suggest additional prayers surrounding ha lahma anya that capture the moment and offer a message.
Block, for example, has offered the following prayer, based on the structure of one composed by several rabbis at Bergen-Belsen, in another scenario that deviated (in that case much more exceptionally and poignantly) from the usual Pesah Seder. He notes that his text includes both a sense of mourning what is missing and joy at doing what is appropriate in the situation. The suggested prayer reads as follows:
Our Father in Heaven! It is open and known before You that it is our will to do Your will to celebrate the festival of Pesah with our communities, families, and friends, to pray and recite Your praises together with our communities, to have an intergenerational conversation about the story of the Exodus, to take care of the elderly, to sincerely invite those less fortunate to partake of the Seder with us, as the Haggadah says, “Anyone who is hungry – come eat, anyone who is needy – come and partake of the Pesah offering.” With aching hearts we must realize that the current precautions around the COVID-19 pandemic prevent us from such celebration, since we find ourselves in a situation of sakkanat nefashot, of potential danger to our lives. Therefore, we are prepared and ready to fulfill Your commandment, “And you shall live by them (by the commandments of the Torah), but not die by them,” and we heed Your warning: “Be very careful and guard your life.” Therefore we pray to you that You maintain us in life and hasten to redeem us that we may observe Your statutes and do Your will and serve You with a perfect heart. Amen!
While this approach certainly does not diverge from R. Schachter on the specific halakhic question of whether to recite ha lahma and its invitation, it also has a distinct educational message, one that takes seriously the crisis of the moment and applies it to educational effect with this new suggested ritual. What is emphasized is not the similarity to every year’s kol dikhfin, but how different the overall experience is.
Sefirah and COVID
We have seen that the question of how to celebrate happy religious occasions during Coronavirus is an important barometer of how one relates to this experience theologically. In parallel, issues relating to traditional religious periods of mourning may be instructive as well. By this I refer to sefirat ha-omer and the traditional practices of mourning that accompany it, including, most notably, the common custom of refraining from listening to music. (That practice has several forms. Some disallow only live music or singing with musical instruments, but not a capella music; the details need not detain us now, as we are speaking about a general attitude.)
Some have raised the question as to whether, given both the difficulty of social distancing and the limited options for entertainment and even engagement in the home, there might be a dispensation for listening to music during sefirah. As one rabbi put the question (sent out to RCA members on April 13, 2020): “In order to reduce some of the depressing atmosphere can we allow for the dispensation of the issur of music, at least the recorded kind, during sefirah.” Rav Schachter’s response to this query notes that the practice of not listening to music is only a minhag, or custom, patterned after the year of mourning following the death of a relative. It originally applied only to music with dancing and was later extended to recorded music. Given the attenuated level of the prohibition and the current moment, Rav Schachter ruled as follows:
During this time of global suffering, it would appear that for some individuals, refraining from listening or playing music may leave one in a state of sadness or emotional distress. This would appear to reach beyond the intent of this restriction. If the motivation to listen to music is not to put oneself in a cheerful mood but rather to ease the tension or pressure in one’s home, and to help bring oneself back to a normal disposition, that would be permissible. One should still avoid listening to very cheerful music.
The permissive ruling was not limited to cases where there would be a risk to someone’s mental health – those cases are clear and allow for much more extensive leniencies. Rather, this was a case where one would be sad or emotionally distressed as a result of lacking access to music as a comforting activity. In such a case, Rabbi Schachter presumed that the original practice was not intended to cause people sadness, only to avoid excessive happiness, and thus one may listen to music, albeit while still trying to avoid more cheerful music. The basis of the argument is fully halakhic, and based around the goal of maintaining one’s usual state of mental well-being.
One might have invoked another factor in this context, that the global pandemic and state of crisis might precisely call for a more somber state of affairs than usual. Rather than being a reason to alleviate the sorrow of sefirah, it might be a reason to double down on the sense of isolation and lack of calm precipitated by the prohibition on music (assuming it didn’t rise to a level of danger to one’s mental health).
In fact, Rav Asher Weiss, a leading decisor in Israel, argued in a similar direction in a short Hebrew essay translated here:
In terms of your question, which many are asking – should one be lenient at this time to allow listening to music during sefirah given the Coronavirus?
I will express to you my pain. It appears to me to be a tendency in the broader community, and even among many rabbis, to be lenient in a sweeping manner in all areas, given the Coronavirus. Some exempted women from cleaning for Pesah, others permitted eating kitniyot, yet others allowed speaking to their distant and isolated relatives using a computer on Yom Tov, some allowed planting flowers on hol ha-moed, and many other similar cases. The more lenient, the more praiseworthy!
This tendency has no place and no justification. We are in a time of crisis, and in a time of crisis it is incumbent upon each person to strengthen themselves [religiously] and to practice additional stringencies and to sanctify oneself through [refraining from] what is permitted, not to denigrate what is prohibited.
For this reason it is clear that there is no reason to allow in a sweeping or general fashion playing and listening to music during sefirah; rather, each case must be considered on its own. It is clear that if, as a result of social distancing and remaining at home, a man or woman has a psychological difficulty like depression, and listening to music will settle their mind and give a rest to their turbulent soul, there is certainly room to be lenient.
Similarly for parents with large families who have difficulty occupying their children… But there is no room to make a general [lenient] ruling here.
While R. Weiss agreed with R. Schachter about the relatively limited minhag of not listening to music (and especially recorded music) during sefirah, and he allowed for leniencies in cases of need, he was not willing to offer a sweeping permissive ruling. Instead of formulating this point on purely halakhic grounds, R. Weiss invoked a theological consideration – the fact that our current moment is one of crisis. Rather than the broad tendency to leniency that many have adopted, with the goal of making life easier in these difficult times, R. Weiss insists, it is necessary to seek religious growth, including by pursuing stringency. That is at least part of the reason why R. Weiss was loath to offer a general leniency, and why he only permits music in cases where it is deeply needed.
Pandemic cases make for complicated theology. Proper responses to the impetus of a global crisis, and one that entails extreme isolation in practice, might pull in two opposite theological attitudes. At once, there is a goal of preserving a sense of normalcy in order to promote psychological and even spiritual well-being. At the same time, one might see the objective of emphasizing the crisis and its limitations, with the goal of having the appropriate relation to God in prayer and ritual. Both Coronavirus Exceptionalism and Coronavirus Normalization are reasonable positions, given the circumstances.
This tension has been demonstrated by analyzing three cases – the nature of prayer and its application during Nissan; new rituals in ha lahma anya; and possible attenuation of sefirah mourning rituals–where there have been debates over specific questions that tie in to this broader theological issue. It is no coincidence that each relates to an event triggered by the Jewish calendar – generally these responses have been formulated piecemeal, responding to specific events and items on the immediate agenda. While it is possible to notice patterns and uncover the implicit theology behind these rulings, these theologies are generally not explicitly formulated as such, with the notable exception of R. Mosheh Lichtenstein’s explicit treatment.
This analysis revealed some patterns as to who comes down on which side of the divide. R. Hershel Schachter, followed by many community rabbis such as R. Yaakov Taubes, emphasized a focus on retaining normalcy as much as possible. That meant retaining the normal calendar of skipping prayers of mourning, retaining the pseudo-invitation of kol dikhfin as usual, and trying to avoid some of the difficulties of sefirah’s mourning period. On the other hand, a group of rabbis from different sectors of Israel’s halakhic community coalesced around the view of emphasizing the crisis of this moment in their messaging – R. Mosheh Lichtenstein of the Dati Leumi community, Hasidic dayyan R. Asher Weiss, and the Lithuanian Eidah HaHareidit leadership. Their embrace of a theology of crisis and isolation, of increased prayer even in happy times, and of increased stringency rather than leniency all combine into a coherent theological position.
This pattern reflects a divide between American and Israeli decisors and communities. Part of this may tie in to Israel’s long-standing culture of instituting special days of prayer and fasting in response to current events, which America lacks. Additionally, in Israel the pandemic was seen, on a national level, as a Jewish crisis, while Jews in the United States likely saw it as a more general challenge rather than a particularly Jewish one.
By examining these various theological and meta-halakhic issues, it is possible to attain a view of the theologies in response to this horrific crisis. As the greatest challenges of COVID seem far back in the rear-view mirror, and as things are beginning to return to normal it is worth keeping in mind these divergent theological approaches to crisis taken up by various Jewish communities. And, just as we recently marked the end of the plague in Rabbi Akiva’s time with Lag ba-Omer, may this emergence from COVID portend a happier outlook, as well.
 This relates to both the themes of human and divine majesty and humility and the dichotomy between regular prayer and prayer out of crisis that are prevalent within R. Soloveitchik’s works. See Lonely Man of Faith, “Majesty and Humility,” and Worship of the Heart at length.
 Another such benefit is offering regular contact with the synagogue and its rabbi at a time when natural interactions are not taking place. Additionally, some communities have used this as an opportunity for expressing prayers for the deceased that are parallel to Kaddish, if not Kaddish itself.
 The following message was publicized in one rabbinic group:
Rav Schachter feels that Avinu Malkeinu should not be recited during Chodesh Nissan as it has always been considered to be a חודש הגאולה. Tachanun is not recited nor should Avinu Malkeinu.
 It is not clear who in particular, other than the Israeli Rabbinate, this critique is aimed at. That being said, it would apply squarely to the position noted above.
 For an analysis of some of these categories, see several relevant essays by Alex Sztuden, especially “Grief and Joy in the Writings of Rabbi Soloveitchik, Part I: Psychological Aspects,” Tradition 43:4 (2010), 37–55.