As I read with deep sadness that various religious institutions are still hosting services or plan to resume them soon, I’d like to take a minute to tell you (if you don’t already know) about a Jewish concept called pikuach nefesh.
Pikuach nefesh loosely means “saving a life.” The concept – observed by even the most Orthodox Jews, though applied more stringently than in other denominations – is that nearly every piece of Jewish law should be overridden if obeying that law puts even one person’s life in danger. So for example, if someone has a heart attack on Shabbat, it’s okay to drive them to the hospital. If you are trapped on an island and the only protein available is pig, you don’t have to keep kosher. The point is that human life is incomparably sacred, and that to risk that life – especially in an attempt to please God – is actually an affront to God, who gifted each person with that life.
This has perhaps never been more relevant than it is right now. Last week, a prominent and revered Virginian pastor contracted the virus and died after insisting on holding services in defiance of social distancing guidelines. “I firmly believe that God is larger than this dreaded virus,” the pastor said to the media just a few short weeks ago. In response to his pastor’s death, a church elder then stated, “The first thing I asked God is, ‘Why?’”
I genuinely do not mean to make fun of this pastor’s death or the grief of his congregation, friends and family, but I think most of us can agree that the “why” is fairly obvious. If someone died by playing a game of Russian Roulette, would any of us struggle to determine “why” it had happened? This pastor believed that God would keep him safe. I would argue that God tried to. By giving humans the ability to understand medical science, by sending warnings through public health officials, and by inspiring government policies urging the pastor not to do this. He didn’t listen. And now he’s gone, having risked not only his own life but the lives of people whose wellbeing and trust were placed in his hands.
I truly hope that if anyone of any religion who reads this is planning to attend religious services during this pandemic, thereby endangering your life as well as those around you and all of society’s, you will consider the concept of pikuach nefesh, and ask yourselves if the God you believe in would ever want you to risk your life and the lives of others in order to worship Him/Her/Them/It.
Feel free to share this post with anyone whom you think might benefit from it… Let’s all stay safe, and find ways to stay connected to our faiths and to our communities without endangering ourselves or others.