Two weeks ago, on August 10, a procession of fifty Orthodox rabbis bearing musical instruments ancient and modern boarded a chartered plane at Ben Gurion Airport. As the plane took off, the rabbis began to chant prayers; some blew trumpets and other instruments, including the shofar, the ceremonial ram’s horn that is sounded on Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and at the end of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The plane circled in the Israeli skies and then flew north to the Golan Heights and south to Beersheba. The procession then returned to Ben Gurion Airport, having symbolically covered the extent of the Land of Israel.
The rabbis were associated with an institution of Kabbalah Studies, the Nahar Hashalom Yeshiva. They were praying for an end to what they dubbed “the disease,” otherwise known as “swine flu” or A(H1N1) virus. The organizer of the “prayer flight,” Rabbi Yitzhak Batzri, told journalists that “the purpose of the flight was to stop the epidemic, thus preventing further deaths.”
A few days earlier, the Israeli Ministry of Health had announced that over 2,000 Israelis have been diagnosed with the A(H1N1) virus, and that eight people have died from the disease. That announcement came on the heels of a government decision to purchase A(H1N1) vaccine for the Israeli population, which totals seven million people. (According to the World Health Organization more than 800 people around the world have died from this flu.)
Flying over Israel and taking one’s prayers a little closer to the heavens might seem like a recent rabbinic innovation, but it is not. Actually, there were a number of precedents for such prayer flights; one as early as 1942, when the Jews of British Mandatory Palestine feared that the Nazis would break through the British defenses in Egypt and conquer the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean. Prayers were said through the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine. Among them were prayers offered from a small plane. Other such attempts at invoking divine intercession from the air were made by a group of rabbis in the mid-1990s; they were praying for an end to the numerous suicide bombings of that period.
For these “flying rabbis” (as the BBC has dubbed them), what to name the threatening pandemic was in itself a problem. The Israeli government initially referred to the virus as shapaat hazirim (“swine flu”), but officials of the Ministry of Health, which is controlled by the Ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, objected to that name, as it mentioned the Hebrew word for pig, the archetypical forbidden food. This past May, M.K. (Member of Knesset) Yaakov Litzman, acting director of the Ministry, referred to the virus as “Mexican Flu.” As the Telegraph noted, with typical British understatement: “that, however did not sit well with either Mexico’s ambassador to Israel nor the Jewish state’s envoy to Mexico.”
Now that an international consensus has emerged that refers to the virus as A(H1N1), Ministry of Health director Litzman and his rabbinical colleagues give their attention to the real problem: how to protect the Israeli population. In controlling the spread of the virus, however, religious considerations have come into play. Just this past week the Sephardic Chief Rabbi, Shlomo Amar, addressed a concern raised by doctors at Asaf Harofe hospital, one of Israel’s major facilities. On the doorpost of every hospital room (with the exception of toilets) there is a mezuzah, the Jewish ritual object. A widespread custom among religiously observant Jews is to “kiss the mezuzah” (by touching it with your hand and then kissing your hand) as one enters and leaves a room. A research team of Asaf Harofe found that all hospital mezuzahs tested had picked up dangerous bacteria that could be easily transmitted to patients and visitors alike.
Informed of these findings, Chief Rabbi Amar stated that he would follow the advice of the Ministry of Health. If the ministry recommended a ban on kissing the mezuzahs, he would suggest that they “air kiss” it, without touching it, thus preserving the custom without endangering the public health. Within a few days of the Chief Rabbi’s announcement there was continuing evidence of the spread of A(H1N1) in Israel. Rabbi Amar and his colleagues decided on a more traditional Jewish response to catastrophe: the declaration of a public fast. The date chosen was the eve of the beginning of the month of Elul, the month that precedes the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. (On the Christian, or “civil calendar” as it is known in Israel, it was Wednesday, August 19.)
Israel is one of 168 countries to which the A(H1N1) virus has spread; and the intrusion of religious considerations into the management of the pandemic is by no means unique to that country. India too, with its population of close to a billion people and its extraordinary religious diversity, is struggling with how to manage the situation without offending religious sensibilities. Health authorities in each Indian state are monitoring the spread of the disease and any resultant fatalities. In the western state of Maharashtra (with its capitol in Mumbai), there have been eleven deaths directly attributable to A(H1N1).
In Bangalore, a high-tech center, a local Shiva Temple is performing a havan (an ancient fire ritual) that is directed specifically toward the “eradication of swine flu from all of India and all of the world.” While some are praying for the end of the virus, others in India are modifying or eliminating existing rituals to protect public health. Hindu religious leaders appealed to celebrants of Janmashtami festival (which celebrates the birth of Krishna) to eliminate the dahi-handi custom, which involves the creation of human pyramids by gymnasts. They are reenacting a scene from the childhood of Krishna in which the young god steals some yogurt curds.
Israeli and Indian health authorities are soon to confer about their respective plans for vaccination against the virus, which will require the purchase of large amounts of vaccines from European pharmaceutical companies. I doubt that the respective religious authorities of these two countries will be meeting, though it might be a good idea for them to confer as how religious beliefs and rituals can have a bearing (either positive or negative) on public health. In both Judaism and Hinduism purity, though differently defined, and ritual practice, though differently configured, are of central importance; and thus it is no surprise that in both countries religious rituals and public health concerns have clashed and converged.