These are scary days for the Jewish people. Many wonder silently or aloud: Do we take the kippah off our heads? Remove the Jewish star chain from our neck? Take the mezuzah down from our doorposts? Lower, if we have it, the Israeli flag from outside our homes? I’m sure Muslims also wonder similar things these days, mutatis mutandis.
Jewish tradition provides guidance in such moments. The Babylonian Talmud (ca. 6th-century Iran) contains the foundational sources of pikuach nefesh—the principle that we can violate almost any commandment if required to save a life. Of course, most Jews know about pikuach nefesh; fewer are familiar with its adjoining propositions:
The rules of pikuach nefesh are taught for all cases except when Jews are subject to persecution. At times of persecution, you cannot violate even a minor commandment to save your life, but rather you should let yourself be killed.
And even at times when Jews are not subject to persecution, the rules of pikuach nefesh are only applicable in private. Again, in public, you cannot violate even a minor commandment to save your life, but rather you should let yourself be killed.
What is a “minor commandment”? Even to change the way you tie your shoelace.*
I’m NOT advocating we lay down our lives rather than make modest adjustments for safety. (Trust me, my colleagues in security would lay down my life were I to make such a suggestion!) Instead, I’m pushing us to consider what this concept means to us in late-October 2023. I’ve heard so many people ask about what we should adjust in our practice to feel safer in these times, and I get it.
To my introductory questions—all real sentiments I have heard over the last two weeks—I would say this: Do you think your life genuinely is at risk? If so, I disagree with my late-antique rabbinic forebears. You should make as modest an adjustment as you can to protect yourself. Maybe tuck in the Jewish star necklace, hang the flag in a different place, or remove the kippah at moments you think it makes you most vulnerable.
But do today’s circumstances “just” make you uncomfortable? (“Just,” as if any of this is simple, small, or fair!) Then perhaps its worth reconsidering your inclination to self-dejudaization. As I think the Talmud means to illustrate, sometimes there are sacrifices we make to be Jewish in public. But better to make most of those sacrifices to our comfort or property than surrender our identity. Me, I can handle a few offensive comments, a slur, or a broken window more than I can envision a life where I cease to be my authentic Jewish self.
I encourage you (and people in any threatened group) to consider where exactly your red lines lie and to exercise your identity with safe chutzpah, wisdom, and pride. And remember—as hard as it is to imagine right now—this too shall pass.
*Bavli Sanhedrin 74a; edited very modestly for brevity and clarity.
This piece was originally featured on arijun.com