A Thought on the HHDays: Technology and Emotional Distress

Below is a summary of some research I'm doing into the place of emotional distress in halakhic decision making, specifically regarding the use of technology (e.g. livestreaming) on the High Holy Days of 5781. If you would like to see a more in-depth view of my sources and interpretation, please do get in contact with me (most easily done at rabbi.natasha@newlondon.org.uk).

(Please note: the area of law in which I'm discussing is around the termination of pregnancy. This might be a difficult subject for some to read about.)

The introduction of mental health into the halakhic equation regarding termination of pregnancy began as a method for protecting life (pikuach nefesh) and classifying the fetus as a pursuer (rodeif; this allowed rabbis to prioritise the life of the mother), largely relying on the opinion of Rabbi Israel Meir Mizrahi in the late seventeenth century. However, it has since been expanded to cover cases in which there is non-lethal emotional distress over the pregnancy. For example, Rabbi Ben Zion Uziel, former Chief Rabbi of Israel, considered the distress of the woman to the deciding factor in determining whether there may be a termination of the pregnancy; he explicitly stated that a very slim reason (ta’am kalush), such as the fear of shame, would be sufficient to allow abortion (Mishpetei Uziel vol. III). It seems to me that we can use a similar thought process here. We are not dealing with a case of pikuach nefesh, but we do know that we are dealing with cases of emotional distress; in these cases, allowing a person to access technology in order to alleviate distress should, in my opinion, be seriously considered. Were we to follow this line of thought, it would mean that we must assume that anybody accessing the livestream is doing so genuinely, and that we are challenging congregants to ask themselves whether or not they are in need of this technology.

One might consider us in violation of lifnei iveir (putting a stumbling block before the blind). However, it seems to me that the above would be a stumbling block only if there were no other livestreams; because a non-ailing individual could access livestreams on the internet with ease anyway, the ability to access our livestream should not, in my opinion, be considered a stumbling block (as per Avodah Zarah 6b, in which offering wine to a nazir – who has made a vow against touching wine – is not a stumbling block because the nazir already has reasonable access to wine). There also might be question of whether the cases of abortion should be considered a different category due to being private and not communal; however, I would note that Covid-19 is a communal problem and therefore requires an open, communally-accessible solution.

In summary, it seems to me that if we agree that a) emotional anguish is considered a valid reason to allow for lenience around even biblical laws (as demonstrated by Rabbi Uziel), b) being isolated over the High Holy Days (a time in which isolation may be felt more acutely and painfully than other days of the year) might be considered to be a potential moment of emotional anguish, and c) the limitations of lifnei iveir allow for something to be made accessible for a specific, halakhically justifiable reason, even if we can expect that people will access it for non-justified reasons (as demonstrated by Avodah Zarah 6b), then I believe that allowing for a livestream to be set up in the most halakhically accessible manner would be an appropriate halakhic response to the High Holy Days of 5781.


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