In 1952, working here at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Dr. Jonas Salk, the son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who grew up in the Bronx, developed a vaccine against poliomyelitis. Today there are only a few hundred cases of polio that are contracted each year in the whole world. Polio had been a dreaded disease, causing paralysis in about 5 out of 1000 infected people.
Thank God, we have no need to fear polio today. Thank God for the Divine inspiration, working through the hands of Dr. Salk and his fellow researchers, that led to the development of the polio vaccine.
I am sorry to say that we will not have as much success with SARS-CoV-2, and that will be largely due to the politicization of health care, and, frankly, everything else.
Vaccination centers have plenty of available doses waiting for arms. We hit a peak of over 3.3 million shots per day in mid-April, and now we are around 2 million per day. We all saw this coming. But the public discourse has led to a situation in which a whole lot of people are insistent that they would rather take their chances with a virus that has killed officially nearly 600,000 Americans, and perhaps as many as 900,000, a virus that is in fact far more dangerous and deadly than polio.
Now, before we all start pointing fingers, let’s face it, folks: we are all to blame for this. We are all to blame because of what you might call a meḥitzah in public life.
Let me explain:
What is a meḥitzah? Many of you may be familiar with this word from its Yiddishized pronunciation, with the accent on the “ḥi“. (Being a Zionist and a lover of the Hebrew language, I prefer to place the accent in the correct place, i.e. the final syllable. BTW, it’s related to the word ḥetzi, half, because a meḥitzah cuts things in half.)
The meḥitzah is the divider that you find in Orthodox synagogues between men and women. Since we at Beth Shalom and the Conservative movement are egalitarian, that is, we make no distinction in Jewish law between men and women, we have no need for a meḥitzah. And in fact, it was the elimination of the meḥitzah which was one of the hallmarks of the Conservative movement in its early years, even before Conservative synagogues became fully egalitarian. We want people to be together, families to be together in synagogue.
Metaphorically speaking, however, a meḥitzah is a barrier, a dividing line. And I think that we are living in a time in which the meḥitzot of our lives are causing very real damage.
We are experiencing a breakdown in communication across our society, and that has everything to do with the fact that we are all living in different media environments. We seek out the news sources that merely reaffirm our own worldview, abetted by social media, and are siloed such that we dismiss arguments for the other side.
And that, by the way, also plays out in the Jewish world.
For example, the metaphorical meḥitzah between Orthodoxy and everybody else has led to complexities surrounding the essential question of “Who is a Jew?”, and in particular around the challenges of who can get married in Israel or be buried in a Jewish cemetery. (Some of you may recall that my name is on a “blacklist” of rabbis whose testimony as to who is Jewish is not accepted by the Orthodox Israeli rabbinate.)
Back on this side of the Atlantic, the challenge of the meḥitzah in public life is now playing out in our efforts to eliminate the coronavirus from our midst. Israel, where politics infuses everything, has many challenges, but thank God, public health is not one of those. My son, who is in the IDF, was fully vaccinated back in January.
I heard a story this week on NPR about a rural area in Oregon, where vaccine resistance is so high, and that people are so angry at each other about it, that local pastors claim that they cannot even talk about it in church on Sunday, for fear of getting people riled up.
The factors here are complex, but to some extent, listening to this story reminded me of Robert Putnam’s seminal sociological work from twenty years ago, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Putnam’s essential argument is that social capital, the glue that connects us to people outside of our regular range of friends and relatives, has steadily declined since the middle of the 20th century. The result has been a decay in the overall resilience of our society, by a range of measures.
Social capital and public health are inextricably linked. One reason that we were able to eliminate polio is that the vaccine appeared at a time when Americans had a much greater level of social capital, of interconnection between people. Now we are all metaphorically bowling alone, not in leagues, disconnected from one another, residing in our own bubbles, and constantly stimulated by the division machine that is the media, which feeds off of your clicks and likes and reactions and shares.
If we are not interconnected, through civic organizations and sports leagues and bridge clubs and, of course, synagogues, we are less likely to care about the people around us, and therefore understand the need for public health measures, or sustainable energy sources, or anything that requires collective action. And of course we should note that the pandemic isolation has likely caused even further decline in social capital.
We are having a very hard time right now thinking about the greater good. We are all in it for ourselves. And it is just that much easier to throw up a meḥitzah, a dividing line between you and me.
The major question that we are facing in the current moment is, how will we get those who are vaccine-hesitant to change their minds? Politicians, it seems, will not be able to do so. (See the meḥitzah problem.) Fervent opinion pieces in major newspapers will not do it either. Noodging your resistant friends and relatives probably will also fail.
New York Times columnist David Brooks, in his column this week on our failure to achieve herd immunity, writes:
A lot of Americans have seceded from the cultural, political and social institutions of national life. As a result, the nation finds it hard to perform collective action. Our pathetic Covid response may not be the last or worst consequence of this condition.
Between the silos of American life, the distrust sown between people in different groups, and the loss of social capital, the challenge here seems insurmountable.
Based on some of the things that I have read in various sources, it seems that only cold, hard facts from a trusted source (e.g. the family doctor) might work. Let’s hope that our medical community still holds some sway here.
But the bigger picture, the one about the meḥitzot of our lives, will be with us for a long time. Until we can all find a way to get past us vs. them, until we can begin to think of ourselves as all being in this together, then we will continue to devolve as a nation. I am of course hoping that synagogues, churches, mosques, gurdwaras, and so forth, as places that still create social capital, will help us with seeing past ourselves, to the others around us, to those not like us, to those with whom we disagree.
One of the gems that is found in Parashat Behar, from which we read this morning, is the quote that is inscribed on the Liberty Bell, Vayiqra / Leviticus 25:10:
וּקְרָאתֶ֥ם דְּר֛וֹר בָּאָ֖רֶץ לְכָל־יֹשְׁבֶ֑יהָ
Ukratem deror ba-aretz, lekhol yosheveha.
Proclaim liberty throughout the land, to all the inhabitants thereof.
Though the Liberty Bell is a powerful symbol of our American freedom, the Torah’s context is a somewhat mundane issue about the jubilee year, the 50th year in the agricultural cycle, in which ancestral lands were returned to each Israelite tribe, so that each tribe would retain its original boundaries. The liberty, found here is in fact an effort to make sure that nobody would be in permanent debt, and that no one person or tribe could swallow up all the other tribes’ land. It preserved a healthy status quo that enabled our ancestors to retain their independence as well as their interdependence.
I am afraid that we will not have learned the most essential lesson of this pandemic, which is that we are all in this together, and that we must work together, to rebuild trust, to re-establish that sense in our immediate communities as well as throughout our society.
We may be able to start gathering again. But will we address the greater challenge, the challenge of the meḥitzah? I certainly think that we should, and that as individuals and as organizations and governmental agencies we should be thinking about this on a high level.
We must sit together, with no meḥitzah. We cannot bowl alone.
Only when we each see the humanity in every other person, no matter who they are, the color of their skin, their ethnicity or sexuality or religion or even who they vote for, will we be able to move forward. Only in this way may we ultimately begin to solve the challenges that we face, and only then might we finally proclaim liberty for all of our inhabitants.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 5/8/2021.)