The Magic Touch

My friend Rabbi Dr. Robbie Harris wrote recently in his blog about how this pandemic is causing rabbis to rethink what it means to be together as a community. Rabbis have long thought that a minyan needs to be in person, that we need ten real people to have a quorum for prayer. COVID-19 has changed all of that. Many rabbis in all denominations have decided that a virtual community, in this hour of crisis, may be enough. To fulfill our religious obligations that require a minyan, it will be OK for now to have a virtual minyan.

Rabbi Harris notes that this “concession” to this time of danger, when it is unsafe for people to be together, this concession, may really be only a remnant of the twentieth century. Maybe the problem is that rabbis from older generations don’t understand what younger members of the rabbinate, as well as younger members of society, understand. The generation of the twenty-first century don’t use the word “virtual” before their idea of community. To this significant and growing population, “online” is the same as “present”. The internet is as natural to them as the telephone is to our older generations.

I have been around long enough to know how much things have changed over the past few decades. The computer we now hold in our hands inside our mobile phones is more sophisticated than the computers that guided the space shuttle on their missions. I consider technology as neutral; it is how we use technology, that makes all the difference.

This virus touches our lives in the way we touch other people. That is one of the insidious consequences of this disease. The fear that it creates in our society, its rapid spread through airborne particles forces us, because we are without an arsenal of weapons to defend ourselves, to distance ourselves socially and cocoon ourselves in our homes. The touch of another person is not to be desired anymore. Touch, hugs, kisses, holding hands, a hand on a shoulder, the touch on a cheek, resting a head on a lap, these are now pathways for a deadly virus to enter our bodies and bring to us sickness and even death.

I applaud those rabbis who have suspended the rules of community in this hour of danger. While it is sad to see an empty sanctuary, empty classrooms and empty social halls, it does not come close to the sadness of attending the funeral of someone who has died of Covid-19. It is tragic that those who are the sickest have to die alone without the presence of family, and then, the curse continues when the funeral is limited in size and time and a family bereaved must sit shiva alone. Our buildings will keep without us. Saving lives always takes precedence. Touch was already under siege before this plague hit us. Touching, without permission, is now called assault. Unwanted touch finally and rightfully became a crime. Now, even when we want to be touched, we are forbidden to get within six feet of each other.

But will the world be a better place without a handshake? Will childhood wounds heal as well without a parent’s kiss? Is it possible to comfort a friend or relative as they mourn a loss without a hug? As a Rabbi I have had people in a hospital waiting room fall onto my shoulder in tears, finally able to release the fear and sorrow they have locked inside them as they wait for word from the surgical suite. Can love grow without touch?

Touch may be imperfect, but we primates need it to survive. This virus has taken that away from us. To stop a pandemic, we may be able to refrain from touching and stand no less than six feet apart. But we cannot live that way forever. This disease will come to an end and so will social distancing.

And, as I watch my grandchildren on Google Hangouts, it can’t happen soon enough.

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