Living by the law

‘No one is keeping us as Jews or as Christians from living lives of religious conviction.’

Priest walks by pews with photos of congregation attached to them.

Churches continue to adapt to holding services under COVID-19 restrictions. At a church in Austria priest Johannes Laichner puts photos of his congregation on the pews and records his daily mass on video, which he uploads for viewing by his congregation via internet by the evening. (Photo by Jan Hetfleisch/Getty Images)

We have been friends and brothers for some time. Tragically, we came together after the shooting at Tree of Life – Or L’Simcha Congregation in Pittsburgh. We worked to bring community together. We worked to honor love and not hate. We worked to create and not destroy. We worked to build community, brotherhood and sisterhood, and to understand what it means to be human beings — not despite our differences but because of our differences.

But a place of common ground is a love and veneration of life.

Judaism teaches as a fundamental reality that we are meant to live by the law not die by the law. This means that saving a life — be that our own or someone else’s — supersedes almost all other legal mandates in Judaism, keeping kosher and Shabbat alike, for example. We are compelled and challenged by this tenet especially in this time.

Christianity teaches primarily that in and because of Jesus we have the hope of resurrected life. But it also teaches that Jesus came not just so that we may have life, but that we may have it abundantly, in the here and now.

Furthermore, we learn together from a shared tradition that the primary purpose for humanity as seen in the Book of Genesis is keeping and tilling God’s garden, which is a garden of life. It is no accident that the Hebrew Bible begins in a garden and the resurrection found in the Gospel of John takes place in a garden. Life, full, vibrant and abundant, is primary to our collective witness.

We have each struggled to find a way to build community invoking this concept of saving a life.

For Judaism, the Talmud goes even further to say that if you save a life you save the world, and if you destroy a life you destroy a world. Christianity teaches that community and being in-the-flesh with one another is also primary. After all, one of the core teachings for Christians is that God showed up “in the flesh.” Being incarnate along with many expressions of Christianity’s understating of the Eucharist (where Christian’s take Jesus’ flesh and blood together) has made quarantined worship difficult and seemingly impossible.

But we — Christians and Jews — have both succeeded in maintaining our faith and our faiths.

In the Jewish community, we have succeeded nationally and internationally — Reform, Conservative, Orthodox. We have found a way to hold Shabbat services virtually. We are officiating at life cycles virtually. We are gathering as community — virtually. And there are commandments we are indeed not fulfilling. Because above all, saving a life is quintessential.

And in the Christian community, saving a life is also indeed quintessential. Christianity preaches that Jesus was not breaking the Torah healing a man on the sabbath, for example. Christianity is a faith of re-imagination — reimagining itself for centuries, for better and for worse.

Now is such a time when reimagining who we are — Jews and Christians alike — is vital and is of utmost importance.

Beth El Synagogue and Aldersgate United Methodist Church may be surviving and thriving — pivoting and reaching people we’ve never reached before. But we are also hurting, too, as we all are. We want to be together. We want to physically be present for each other. We want to hug those who have lost and we want to dance with those who are celebrating. But we cannot — we believe and agree we cannot.

None of this is ideal — but neither is losing loved ones before their time.

The rabbis and the church fathers teach us that we are meant to partner with God in creation in the face of destruction.

Some might say that if someone dies it is all part of a Divine greater scheme of things. But there’s a difference between commission and omission.

We assert: Commission means I am inserting myself into that greater scheme, potentially altering that Divine plan. Omission means I am letting it take its course blindly.

There may be Christian Biblical precedent to disobey the law of the land when those laws prohibit from living a life of witness. But let Christians remember that this was written in a context wherein simply being a Christian was punishable by death.

In 25 places in the Jewish legal code, the Shulchan Arukh, it says dina d’malkhuta dina — the law of the land is the law. No one is keeping us as Jews or as Christians from living lives of religious conviction.

Gov. Tim Walz’s orders seek to guard life, the very thing we claim to value the most. Is it hard? Yes. Does it force some difficult questions around our sacred rituals? Yes, to be sure. But this is a space where we must ask the hard question: Are our rituals serving us? Or are we now serving our rituals?

It is time to reimagine our rituals for the sake of what is good, and right, and just.

We refuse to be party in ushering the Angel of Death into the living and worship and gathering spaces of our community.

We love the community we live in. We love the state we live in. We love serving as clergy here in Minnesota. And ironically, in this case we will stand idly by — just not by the blood of our brothers and sisters. We will not be the catalyst. We will not be the forebears of death. That would be our plan— not God’s.

We will follow the governor’s direction. We will not gather, we will not put people at risk. Not because we believe we — or the governor — are above God. But because we believe we are all created in God’s Holy Image, and no one creation is greater than the next.

Far be it from us to serve a small part in destroying such holy vessels. We shall be holy for God is holy.

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Rabbi Avi S. Olitzky
Rabbi Avi S. Olitzky

Rabbi Avi S. Olitzky is a senior rabbi at Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.

Pastor Paul Baudhuin
Pastor Paul Baudhuin

Pastor Paul Baudhuin is senior pastor of Aldersgate United Methodist Church in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.