I’ve written and discussed over the last few months the rabbinic principle of “lo plug” which essentially means that we do not make fine distinctions which are theoretically justifiable but might subsequently lead to error or confusion. As a real life example which was discussed by many rabbis, we do not blow the shofar or wave the lulav on Shabbat, but not because either of these actions in and of themselves constitute a violation of Shabbat. They do not -- but carrying either item to the synagogue on Shabbat is a violation. Therefore, out of concern that people might carry their shofar or lulav to synagogue on Shabbat, we omit these rituals.
Therefore the question was raised in some rabbinic discussion groups that perhaps this year we should have gone ahead and performed these two rituals over Zoom. The logic of the suggestion is actually impeccable. If the reason we don’t blow the Shofar or wave the lulav and etrog is the fear of carrying, then in a year where services are being done over Zoom, everyone is home and no one is going to the synagogue so there is no fear of carrying. Nevertheless we did not do so because of the Talmudic principle of lo plug; we do not want to make use of a fine distinction that might subsequently cause a problem. For example, if we had blown the Shofar and waved the lulav and etrog this year on Shabbat, in 2023 when both Rosh Hashanah and the first day of Sukkot once again fall on Shabbat, people would not necessarily understand why it was OK in 2020 but not in 2023 (this is assuming, of course, that by 2023 the pandemic will be over and we will be meeting in the synagogue again.)
I thought of the principle of lo plug a few weeks ago when the CDC said that fully-vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks indoors, and states, including our own, responded by lifting their indoor mask mandates. Considered in isolation, the CDC position makes sense. Public health is not only about scientific facts, it is about public behavior; and the prospect of no longer having to wear a mask was a powerful incentive to convince reluctant people to go ahead and get vaccinated. Conversely, the need to continue masking subsequent to being vaccinated could serve as a disincentive to vaccination.
The problem, of course, is that the situation we now find ourselves in was almost inevitable given what we know about human behavior and the significant percentage of people in this country who insist on the freedom to do whatever they want without an iota of concern for how their exercise of freedom affects others. While at least a few weeks ago, and sometimes even today, businesses have signs that indicate that fully-vaccinated people can go maskless while others should still wear masks, there is no enforcement mechanism. The same people who continue to refuse to be vaccinated also refuse to wear masks, and as a result, the Delta variant is spreading like wildfire. Here in Montgomery County our vaccination rates are very high, but even here, the number of new daily cases is rising and there is a distinct possibility that an indoor mask mandate will be reinstated. If this happens, we will, of course, follow suit.
Yesterday New York City announced that it is instituting a requirement to provide proof of vaccination to enter restaurants, gyms, and performances. While there are lots of problems with this concept --- among them, the relative ease of forging proof of vaccination and the burden this places on businesses -- I think this is the way to go. Here in our congregation, we have required anyone attending services to be vaccinated or have a medical exemption provided by a licensed physician. Because we are a small community and can trust each other, we take our members at their word. But the events of the past weeks have shown that what works for a small community does not work for society at large.
As always, if I can do anything for you or you need to talk, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 301-977-0768 rather than through the synagogue office.
Rabbi Charles L. Arian