ToI podcast interview

LISTEN: How rabbis of yore fought plague with Temple rite, social distancing

Dr. Rabbi Levi Cooper takes us back in history to show eerie parallels with today’s health measures, then forward – to a helicopter with a trio of rabbis blessing Israel from above

In this week’s Times of Israel podcast, we speak with Dr. Rabbi Levi Cooper about rabbinic responses to previous pandemics. From kabbalistic “front-line workers” to surprisingly sophisticated social distancing measures, ancient Jewish communities documented the steps they took to cope with pandemics over the centuries — and incredibly, many of the questions they had aren’t so different from the ones we’re asking ourselves today.

Cooper, an Australian expat, has served in the IDF’s Golani Brigade and earned three law degrees, culminating in a PhD from Bar Ilan University. Cooper has taught for over 20 years at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, and is a Teaching Fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Buchmann School of Law, in addition to being a prolific writer and community rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.

Cooper delves deep into historical records that are often overlooked but that take on added resonance as we struggle with the coronavirus pandemic. Going back in time to a mid-18th century cholera outbreak, we hear how the founder of the Hasidic movement “put his life on the line” to recite a kabbalistic incantation to save his town from the plague.

We then fast-forward to today, when a trio of spiritual leaders — including a former Sephardic chief rabbi — circle the land of Israel in a helicopter, reciting the very same passages in an attempt to help save the people of Israel from the air.

Illustrative: Religious Jewish men pray while keeping a distance from each other outside their closed synagogue in Netanya on April 23, 2020. (Jack Guez/AFP)

We also learn how 19th century luminary Rabbi Akiva Eiger performed a tightrope walk in deciding how to implement social distancing measures in synagogues over the High Holidays — something particularly relevant as Rosh Hashanah approaches — as well as what happened when the community was faced with the choice between admitting women and allowing more men to pray.

Listen to this week’s podcast to hear about the mystical, the practical, and the eerily familiar ways that Jews throughout history dealt with plagues — and what, besides taking off in a helicopter, we can learn from their ancient trials.

The Times of Israel podcasts are available for download on iTunes, Soundcloud, TuneIn, Pocket Casts, Stitcher, PlayerFM or wherever you get your podcasts.

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