By Rabbi Josh Weinberg
October 16, 2020 -כ”ח תשרי תשפ”א
וַיִּבְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְּצַלְמ֔וֹ בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים בָּרָ֣א אֹת֑וֹ זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בָּרָ֥א אֹתָֽם׃
“And God created the human being in the Divine image, in the image of God did the Eternal created humankind; male and female God created them.”
There’s nothing quite like a good re-start. We do it with our computers and electronic devices, sometimes with relationships, and some even with a television series. This week we have the opportunity to go back to basics – to start all over in the humanity’s longest-running book club that meets tri-weekly to re-read our creation myth, that we were fashioned into this world with purpose.
And no better time for a reminder.
The notion in Genesis of being created in the divine image gave rise to the rabbinic virtue of Kavod Habriyot כבוד הבריות (respect for creations), or more loosely translated as “individual dignity.” This is the quality of respecting human dignity and each person’s basic needs. Protecting a person’s human dignity is a fundamental value in the Torah because of our tradition’s emphasis on the sanctity of humankind.
The rabbis of the Mishnah (circa 200 C.E.) applied the concept of Kavod HaBriyot in their interpretations of and rulings on Halakhah (Jewish law) explaining the importance of the principle as follows:
“Ben Zoma says: איזהו מכובד? המכבד את הבריות Who is honored? The one who honors others, as it is said: ‘For those who honor Me (God) I will honor, and those who scorn Me shall be degraded’ (Samuel I 2:30).” (Avot 4:1)
This concept has also made it into modern critical philosophy. In his 1785 Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, Immanuel Kant offers the “categorical imperative” as a way of evaluating motivations for action. This universal ethical principle states that one should always respect the humanity in others and in accordance with rules that hold for everyone – “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”
Building on the notion of Kavod Habriyot, that all are created in the divine image, this concept could not be more relevant for this moment in time. According to both “rebbes” – Ben Zoma and Kant – the principle made concrete applies – if I don’t wear a face mask in public – or adhere to the regulations – it is a risk; however, I may not spread the virus. If everyone chooses to ‘be the one person’ not to wear a mask, spreading the virus is guaranteed, so I must wear a mask as I am forbidden from doing that which if everyone did as I do, my actions would cause harm and great disruption.
Some in the Haredi community– in Brooklyn and in Israel – are actively choosing to ignore the Talmudic injunction of Kavod HaBriyot , not to speak of pikuach nefesh (saving a life) and Kant’s categorical imperative. While this may be a minority in the Haredi community and not reflective of the Haredi mainstream, the fatal dangers of these groups’ disrespect for humankind’s efforts to thwart this pandemic should be considered a Hilul Hashem – a desecration of God’s name.
A famous midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 4:6) should be all the convincing one needs to do what’s in the best interest of everyone. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai taught a parable: “People were sailing on a ship when one of them took a drill and started drilling underneath him. The others said to him: What are you doing?!? He replied: What do you care? Is this not underneath my area that I am drilling?! They said to him: But the water will rise and flood all of us on the ship!”
Saving lives seems so obvious to some but is interpreted in a vastly different manner by others. Some –not all – Haredim are reacting to the coronavirus restrictions as attacks on religious rights rather than collective protectionary precautions to curb the spread of a pandemic.
Because we are all on the same ship, however, each individual who thinks only of themselves endangers humanity and violates the principle that we are all created B’tzelem Elohim. We don’t have the practical ability to simply cut ourselves off from that community (as Rabbi Donniel Hartman suggests), nor does it seem that we have the ability to enforce the government-imposed regulations. There are some within the Haredi community who have pleaded for everyone in that community to follow regulations. According to Zaka chief Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, “strong and determined leadership could fix this with a clarion call insisting that the religious imperative to save a life [pikuach nefesh] comes above all, but there is no such leadership on the horizon.”
The opening stories in Genesis specifically begin with our universal history and emphasize that each human being was created by God so that no human being should be treated differently. This applies to race and racism, genderism, ageism etc… but must also be taken into account on an individual level and throughout our daily interactions. Liberal Jews often quote this verse from Torah because there is no more important message, and the trends of contemporary society seem to be ignoring the basic notion of human dignity on a global scale. Does each of us truly internalize the truth that every person with whom we interact is created in the divine image, that each person has basic rights to dignity, health, and life?
The Zionist ethos is built on the collectivist approach – where the individual is in service to the whole. In today’s individualism, where the collective is perceived to serve the individual, we struggle to really adjust our behavior to reflect the needs of those outside our immediate circles.
This week as we press re-start and begin reading our story anew, try to read with fresh eyes. Try to see this story as never before and live our lives as if every interaction with another is an interaction with a holy vessel, a divine entity, and then wear a mask.