Physical, cognitive or spiritual herd immunity – which will help us survive?

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Published Times of Israel 04 May 2020

Spiritual herd immunity’ has redeemed our nation for thousands of years – these values haven’t disappeared in the current crisis.

With each passing day, it is becoming clearer that part of the solution to COVID-19 will include some level of “herd immunity,” acquired over time. However, according to Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK Government Chief Scientific Advisor, at least 60 percent of the population would need to contract COVID-19 and become immune for “herd immunity” to work effectively. As a tactic in fighting a pandemic with no vaccine, this solution, some argue, is alarming. Relying on people getting a disease in order to save lives also raises complex and difficult moral questions.

However, as time marches on, the number of tested confirmed cases grows (161,000 in the United Kingdom at the time of writing). What we don’t know is how many people have been exposed to the disease already and survived. As someone who has personally battled the virus earlier this month and survived, my statistics are not included as I wasn’t tested and battled this ruthless virus following government guidelines at home, self-isolating and this is likely to be a common situation. Therefore, establishing whether 60% is immune will be difficult.

Thomas Friedman, the 3-time Pulitzer prize winning journalist in the New York Times last weekend wrote “We Need Herd Immunity from Trump and the Coronavirus” and raised a fascinating question about cognitive immunity, as opposed to physical immunity. “Cognitive immunity” represents our ability to filter out science from quackery and facts from fabrications.

This got me thinking about my own Jewish heritage. For me, it’s not herd or cognitive immunity alone which has brought me to this point in my life, but also ‘spiritual herd immunity’ which I’ve gained from my Jewish background.

I think we, as Jews, have gained innate, fundamental ‘spiritual herd immunity’ in our Jewish lives, which has been passed down through generations and affects how we approach our current circumstances.

Firstly, our ‘spiritual herd immunity’ begins with inclusivity and protection against loneliness. The final book of the Torah, Devarim, teaches us about community and neighbourliness. G-d insists that our economic and social lives must be organized to ensure the wellbeing of widows, orphans and immigrants. “You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice. You shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. Remember you were a slave in Egypt” (Devraim, 24:7).

We currently live in an Instagram and Tik-tok culture of individualism, but Judaism has always insisted on redemption via the community, and, specifically, that no one is left behind. Solitude is likely to be a reality at present; however, loneliness is optional. We have an inbuilt sense of belonging. As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks notes, in “Covenant and Conversation” on Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei, community brings “a sense of common purpose, of helping to bring something into being that was greater than anyone could achieve alone. Communities build; they do not destroy.”

Secondly, Judaism teaches me purpose in my life – giving me ‘spiritual immunity’ from wandering the Earth purposelessly; shelter from the meaningless storm. The word “Torah” means “instruction”. From the moment we open our eyes to the end of the day, the Torah provides clear direction about what to do and how to do it. It lays down for us a clear structure to our lives. The whole purpose of us leaving Egypt and becoming free was to enable us to receive the Torah. When we became a nation after leaving Egypt, we immediately travelled in the direction of Mount Sinai. The whole purpose of our freedom was in order to serve G-d. My Jewish heritage provides me with a clear structure of commands mitzvot and a purpose in life.

Victor Frankl in his bestselling (over 10 million global copies sold) book “Man’s Search for Meaning” famously said “those who have a why to live, can bear with almost any how.” Despite the adversity that we face, be it being locked down confined to our homes or even when we have faced our darkest of hours, having a purpose and goals in life keeps us going. As the Psalmist wrote, “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for you are with me”.

Finally, our ‘spiritual immunity’ is learning to trust in something bigger than ourselves. In Judaism, faith is not an abstract concept, but a living, breathing and practical behaviour. We have faith that G-d is intricately involved in the world and in each of our lives. This means that, whilst we are expected to give 100% in all situations, and to recognise our responsibility to play our role in life, we have the knowledge that we are only expected to give our best. After that point, we hand over the reins to G-d, who will decide on the outcome Striking a delicate balance between our “hishtadlut”, “our efforts”, and the “emunah”, “faith”, is exceptionally liberating. I am the master of my efforts, my attitude and my approach to living. G-d is the master of my destiny. I don’t have to sweat the “big stuff”; I can focus on my part in life, and trust that the rest is in G-d’s hands.

Throughout our Biblical heritage, we learn of Jewish people who put their faith in G-d, when in existential crisis. Most famously, Abraham trusts in something bigger than himself when asked to sacrifice his son. Moses trusts in G-d, when he is asked to lead the redemption of Israelites from the Egyptians. And Jeremiah puts his faith in G-d, when he is asked to speak out against the sins of Judah. As Stephen Covey puts it in “The Speed of Trust” Trust is equal parts character and competence… “You can look at any leadership failure, and it’s always a failure of one or the other.”

Whether ‘spiritual’ or ‘physical’ herd immunity (or ‘cognitive’ for that matter) – each of these survival methods demands that we commune together as one. The policy of self-isolation, whilst effective during a crisis, can’t become the long-term solution to the aftermath of COVID-19. We will need to come back together as communities and as a society. Our skills which we have learnt at home – teaching our children, connecting with our loved-ones, and taking the time to reflect – will become valuable commodities in the world of ‘New Normal’. As Jews, these values lie at the heart of our traditions – from our Biblical heroes to our Halachic laws – and it is incumbent on us to demonstrate to the world (along with other religions), now more than ever, what community, purpose and faith really mean.

Published in Times of Israel (4.05.20)

Published by Rabbi Piny Hackenbroch

Rabbi Piny Hackenbroch is currently the Senior Rabbi in Woodside Park Synagogue – a modern orthodox thriving community of some 1,400 members. His innate love for people and his empowering brand of leadership make him a well-loved figure in Woodside Park & London.

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