N.C. Rabbi: Why Large Indoor Worship Services During a Pandemic Ignores the Golden Rule

Rabbi Matthew Soffer connects virtually with his Durham congregants. Image via Judea Reform Congregation.

By Matthew Soffer

May 29, 2020

Durham’s Rabbi Matthew Soffer says holding large indoor religious services now puts people at unacceptable risks.

Note: N.C. faith leaders shared their thoughts with Cardinal & Pine about in-person services during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Rev. Dr. Nancy Petty wrote earlier about her decision.

Across our faith traditions, we have many forms of the Golden Rule, expanding on the teaching in Leviticus to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” 

My Christian brethren turn to the Gospels to remind them: “Do unto others as you want them to do unto you.” In Judaism we turn to the first century sage, Hillel the Elder, who phrased the Golden Rule distinctly: “Do not do unto others what is harmful to you.” 

Apparently Hillel thought it easier to start by seeing the negative, then working toward the positive. First identify the harmful; avoid it at all costs; then and only then, can one “love thy neighbor.” 

RELATED: Is It Christian To Reopen North Carolina Churches?

We seem to be ignoring every version of the Golden Rule, ignoring what is harmful by reconvening in large groups, and doing unto others what is life-threatening to all, especially the most vulnerable— the elderly, the sick, the poor, the immigrants, and the communities of color hit most hard by this pandemic. 

My clergy colleagues are divided right now, though we shouldn’t be. Political leaders are divided right now, though they shouldn’t be either. 

Some are propagating views that profanely sacrifice fact and reason on the altar of partisanship. Some are advancing a belief that “God will protect” in ways that even a most literal reading of Scripture does not consistently uphold.  Consider Exodus 13, when the Israelites are caught in between Pharaoh’s army and the Red Sea. They are terrified.  They lose hope. Moses tells the Israelites, “Stay put, and God will save you today!” God, however, admonishes Moses: “Why do you call out to Me? Tell the Israelites to advance!”  

In this story, God reminds humanity of its God-given abilities to avoid danger.  None of us believes that God alone transports water from Spring to cup, nor wheat from field to table. Personally, I believe God gives us minds and bodies, tools for us to use in living our story of redemption.  We need not agree on the specifics of how God works — or even if God works at all — in order to do what we can and must to stay safe and avoid mass numbers of deaths. 

For any group to gather indoors, in large numbers, at this moment is unconscionably harmful. 

Similarly, large group outdoor gatherings involving people interacting closely and with no masks will also help this virus kill more and more people.  

When houses of worship model these harmful group behaviors, not only do we fall short of a “peaceable assembly,” we give moral sanction to that which defies all iterations of the Golden Rule. Moreover, by exempting houses of worship from essential safety orders, our government gives this virus exactly what it wants: a faithful breeding ground to destroy life. 

We must not allow our houses of worship to become incubators for COVID-19.  

I know many of my clergy colleagues may disagree. I remain eager to engage in all genuine conversations devoted to the preservation of life and safety. We may differ in our beliefs and opinions, but we share a common fate.  We all are caught between the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s Army.  God knows this is now in our hands. 



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