Opinion: Brooklyn’s 7,000-Person Wedding

It all comes down to “promote the general welfare” vs. “the free exercise…of religion.” 

Nov. 8. Satmar Grand Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum more than freely exercised his religious traditions by hosting a family wedding in Brooklyn reportedly attended by 7,000 guests at a time when coronavirus cases persisted at high levels of infection. 

Nov. 23. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio promoted the general welfare by socking the organizers with a laughable $15,000 fine. 

Nov. 26. Our dysfunctional Supreme Court stamped a final judgment on a synagogue attendance case – rooted in Brooklyn – prioritizing “the free exercise…of religion” over “the general welfare.” 

“Promote the general welfare” is among the principles spelled out in the Constitution’s Preamble, the priorities which compelled the very creation of our Constitution that was proposed at the 1787 Constitutional convention, and subsequently ratified by two-thirds of the states the following year. 

“The free exercise…of religion” is one of our cherished rights proclaimed in the First Amendment which Congress passed in its first year of existence and was subsequently ratified by the states. 

It amazes me how Orthodox Jewry has built such a close-knit, insular society within the wider societies of the organized Jewish community and, well, the rest of America, and with it our country’s city, state and federal governments. 

What the Orthodox have accomplished for themselves is telling for the freedoms that the Constitution allows. Yet, the conduct of some segments of Orthodoxy during this pandemic is a stark example of how they can ignore their obligations to the larger society which allows them such a comfortable place. 

Plaintiffs in the aforementioned Supreme Court case raised legitimate arguments that government policies may not be equitable, but does that justify flouting rules that are necessary to save lives and eliminate infections? 

After ongoing clashes with some Orthodox communities over school closings, limits on shul attendance, large funerals and weddings, mask burnings and even beatings of journalists, the mayor and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo blew up when they learned that Rabbi  Teitelbaum hosted a wedding for his grandson at Yetev Lev D’Satmar synagogue on Nov. 8 in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg section. Thousands attended, possibly as many as 7,000. 

The wedding was “a blatant disregard of the law,” Cuomo told The New York Times. De Blasio swiftly announced that that the organizers would be fined $15,000 for violating public health restrictions, calling the event “amazingly irresponsible.” 

People like Teitelbaum believe that the First Amendment immunizes them from state and city restrictions. Some Orthodox Jews have said that they leave their future up to God. 

Have they told this to physicians and nurses who must treat them and risk their lives in the process? Or police officers who must confront them in protests? Or the general public which can also be infected when the virus spreads among the Orthodox? 

Of course, Orthodox Jews are hardly the only ones who can be blamed for putting so many of us at risk, as they and others insist that the First Amendment protects their rights. Orthodox and other religious factions stress the First Amendment clause that empowers their “free exercise…of religion.” 

They have a special friend in Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, who with four other justices rejected Cuomo’s limits on religious services. Two Brooklyn shuls and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn challenged Cuomo’s rules, arguing that he “singled out a particular religion for blame and retribution for an uptick in a society-wide pandemic.” 

In its unsigned opinion, the court majority wrote, “It is hard to believe that admitting more than 10 people to a 1,000-seat church or 400-seat synagogue would create a more serious health risk than the many other activities that the state allows.” 

After more than 270,000 Covid-19 deaths and 13.7 million cases, it is hard not to believe that any activity is risky. 

Gorsuch goes further in a concurring opinion: “Courts must resume applying the Free Exercise clause…We may not shelter in place when the Constitution is under attack. Things never go well when we do.” 

In another concurring opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor (joined by Justice Elena Kagan) countered: “Justices of this court play a deadly game in second-guessing the expert judgment of health officials about the environments in which a contagious virus, now infecting a million Americans each week, spreads more easily.” 

I have come to wonder if some justices and other attorneys never read the Preamble of the Constitution. Our founding documents were written for some fundamental reasons, and the Preamble that precedes the Constitution lists those reasons. 

The Preamble’s concept to “promote the general welfare” readily applies to protecting the health of its citizens. Saving lives takes precedence over everything else. That is why our leaders are authorized to invoke atypical measures during an emergency. 

Most of us who abide by the rules and advisories despise these dismal conditions, but we endure it out of necessity. Who among us can enjoy our lifestyles without our nation’s protective shell? Orthodox communities have been able to thrive because of our system of government, economy and societal norms. Their way of life can only sustain itself if they comply with our laws and participate in sustaining the greater society and system of governance. 

If Covid-19 dominates for long enough, we may never return to normal. This past Sunday, I was unable to pay my respects to a family friend at her funeral in Bucks County, which is close to where I live in Philadelphia, after the deceased’s daughter and son-in-law limited attendance to immediate family. 

Religious tradition is just as important to me as my more-observant brethren in Brooklyn and elsewhere. If I can subordinate our free exercise of religion to promote the general welfare, why can’t they? 

About Bruce Ticker

Bruce S. Ticker, who writes from Philadelphia, also blogs for The San Diego Jewish World and Smirking Chimp and previously for the suspended Philadelphia Jewish Voice. He was previously a reporter and copy editor for daily newspapers in eastern Pennsylvania.

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