Rabbi’s Weekly Message, August 18, 2021
A riddle: What does COVID have to do with flat-roof houses? The answer involves unpacking one of the Bible’s laws.
Full disclosure: a recent news item is what put me on to exploring what Biblical laws about houses might have to teach us about the needless politicization of COVID. News background: Alabama has one of the lowest rates of Covid-19 vaccination in the country, with just over 1 in 3 residents fully vaccinated, although vaccination rates are rising now, due to alarm over the virulent Delta variant. Against this backdrop, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene—she, the infamous author of the charge that Jews are the nefarious forces igniting California forest fires by means of their secret cache of space lasers—was in Dothan, Alabama to rally the anti-vaccine troops and solidify her support among voters in that demographic. She reportedly told her cheering audience words to the effect that when public health workers come to their door, they should greet them with their firearms in hand.
This calls to mind the English common law dictum going back to the early 17th century: "For a man's house is his castle, and each man's home is his safest refuge." (Sir Edward Coke, The Institutes of the Laws of England, 1628). But equating public health canvassers with hostile agents, to justify threatening or harming them, is the paranoia of the anti-government extreme—or at least it was, until the political upheavals of the past five years, which put such dangerous delusions into the mainstream of our politics.
To be sure, the idea of defending one’s home by deadly force is known in the Bible, but in a much more restrictive way than imagined by the “man’s home is his castle” ideology. If a homeowner hears someone breaking and entering in the middle of the night, and can not see the perpetrator, he is allowed to fear the worst and use deadly force in self-defense. But in the next verse, the Bible stipulates that the homeowner may not do so during the daytime, meaning, when it is clear that the offense is against property and not a threat to his life. All this is in Exodus 22:1-2. That will have to be a conversation for a different time, because during these weeks, the synagogue world is focused on the teachings of Deuteronomy.
In our part of the Bible, the privacy of a man’s home is duly noted. When a creditor walks to a debtor’s house to collect collateral on a loan, he is commanded to wait outside for the debtor to bring him the pledge—Deuteronomy 24:11. This verse is about the human dignity that the Bible insists is not forfeited when a person suffers from poverty. It is not a license to use one’s home as a bulwark against public safety.
The verse that speaks directly to this issue is Deuteronomy 22:8: “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you not put bloodguilt in your house should someone fall from it.” כִּ֤י תִבְנֶה֙ בַּ֣יִת חָדָ֔שׁ וְעָשִׂ֥יתָ מַעֲקֶ֖ה לְגַגֶּ֑ךָ וְלֹֽא־תָשִׂ֤ים דָּמִים֙ בְּבֵיתֶ֔ךָ כִּֽי־יִפֹּ֥ל הַנֹּפֵ֖ל מִמֶּֽנּוּ׃
To visualize the situation that the Bible is addressing, we need to understand that the typical home in Biblical Israel had a flat roof. It was used as part of the domestic economy. Bathsheba bathed on the roof, because that was the logical place for a cistern. In the story about the conquest of Jericho, the heroine, Rahab dried her flax on the roof—Joshua 2:6—and then, when the Canaanite troops had left her dwelling, she ascended the roof to converse with Joshua’s two scouts.
A roof was therefore an integral part of the used space of the house. But it was also a dangerous part, because one might fall from it and come to serious harm. Hence, the regulation in Deuteronomy, that one must protect against that danger by building a guardrail. The Rabbis, who liked to quantify everything, later stipulated that the balustrade needed to be at least 30 inches high.
The ethical principle behind this ruling is that we are responsible for each other. When we build our own homes, we are entitled to such privacy as is consistent with human dignity. But we are not entitled to create hazards. We can not say, “this is the home of the free and the roof of the brave—climb up on it at your own risk. I wash my hands of concern for your safety.” That is not the Jewish way. We are all partners in the promotion of safety. When we build a house, we have to anticipate that it will be used as houses are normally used, and in the Bible, that includes people going about and working on the roof.
And now, to close the circle. How does this relate to COVID? The answer is that when a person gets infected, he becomes a risk to others. He becomes a roof without a parapet, a place of danger. But unlike a roof, he is mobile. So he is still more dangerous than the unguarded roof, which is only a danger to those who come to it.
The spurious debate about vaccines is actually a symptom of a particularly American societal problem. One of the secondary pandemics that has made COVID much worse than it needed to be is the pandemic of partisan jockeying over science. Anti-science did not have to become a political identity- marker. Other countries, such as Israel and Great Britain, have conservative governments who take science seriously. America—this is on us.
It takes a miracle for a Fiddler to balance on a sharply angled Russian Jewish roof. But it doesn’t take a miracle to protect people who walk on a flat roof. It takes common sense.
It’s time to cut down the histrionics, Rep. Greene. Your vote grabbing is directly reinforcing behavior that causes people to sicken and die.
Americans—don’t bring further bloodguilt upon our national home. The ability to saving someone’s life is literally within reach. Please, please—stop the insanity. Choose life.
Rabbi Michael Panitz