To Mask or Not to Mask: That is the Question

The Masked Rider

I think we are forever searching for  the sweet spot where Jewish texts illuminate our life as American Jews, particularly today.   I understand that identifying where and how our two civilizations meet to be a Kaplanian imperative.

So I now return to the “Text Me” project previously described and search out the meeting of my passion as a biker, my love of the old television and radio show The Lone Ranger, and my concern about mask-wearing in this time of pandemic.  Jewish texts provide an integrative thread among these aspects of my life.  I am a devotee of Rabbi Ben Bag Bag’s famous understanding of Jewish texts:  turn them over and over and you will always find something of value.

As I notice the changes in the way people are wearing or not wearing masks, I wonder what might account for the waning motivation to be “masked” in public.  Perhaps we might conjecture:  it’s no longer necessary because COVID-19 is plateauing.  Other aspects of social distancing (think six feet) might be more effective.  I can’t escape the disease so why inconvenience myself?  It is based on inexact science.  If others have stopped doing it what can I contribute?  It’s just not comfortable anymore.  I’m just plain tired of wearing it. The rationales are endless.

In fact we all make adjustments and play with the realities we are given.  I love bike riding and find the mask does strip away some of the joy of soft air brushing against my face and sweet scents breezing by my exposed nose.  So I have learned to move the mask under my chin when I clearly am riding alone and return it to its original position as I see a bike approaching or as I pass or approach a pedestrian.  That’s imperfect.  It can’t account, for instance, for the person passing close to me.  It can’t measure the life cycle of germs that came from the sneeze of five minutes before.  Risks are manageable but not susceptible by their very nature to elimination.  (Or, as my wife reminds me, I could stop riding my bike, but that would risk my sanity.)

When perplexed (or in a state of “bafflement,” as the author Parker Palmer so eloquently expressed in On the Brink of Everything [2018]), I turn to Jewish texts that provide insight and perspective.  I think of three texts in particular in this context.

 Emmanuel Levinas:  I Can’t Bear the Separation from the Divine

 To be masked, Levinas might argue, is to lose touch with the ultimate mystery of God/Godliness in the world that is revealed by the human face.  It is in the encounter with the human face in all its irreducible otherness that I discover my own ethical obligations, a bridging of the phenomenal and valuational worlds Levinas calls “optical ethics”.  To be so soul sick, so bereft of my spiritual compass is unacceptable.  It reminds me of the lament of the liturgist in the poem Yedid Nefesh that to be so distant from the divine is almost insufferable.

That certainly is the most high-minded rationale I can imagine.

The Masking and Unmasking of Moses (Exodus, Chapter 34)

 Perhaps we have lost ourselves in a series of liberal assumptions about what constitutes holiness and awe.  Moses dons a mask (a maseveh)  when he is on Mount Sinai every time he is not engaged in absolutely essential communication, defined in the Torah as communicating directly with God or conveying the revelation to the Israelites.

At any other time the absolute terror of the Divine requires distance or in this instance Moses wearing a mask.  When scholars like Max Kadushin talk about the “emphatic trend” of the Rabbinic mind in downplaying the fierce judgment of God with a more balanced rachamim (mercy) understanding of holiness, we applaud.  But is something lost in the process?  The  anthropologist Rudolf Otto wrote about this in his late 19th century description of the “holy”.  In visual media, Steven Spielberg captures it when the Ark goes crazy with overflowing, dangerous otherness, endangering all who are near and unprotected in Raiders of the Lost Ark. My wife, Dr. Deborah Schein, speaks of this necessary element of “fearful” reverence as providing a cornerstone for the child’s sense of belonging to a community larger than him/herself.

It seems to me that in our first brushes with COVID-19, this elemental fear served an important purpose.  It thrust upon us caution about what we don’t yet (or perhaps never will understand).  But of course moments of revelation give way to the ordinary.

The Ahavah Rabbah Prayer: Moving from Divine Love to Human Teaching and from Learning to Practices and Routines

Some scholars of Jewish liturgy (Lawrence Hoffman, for example) find in the flow of the Shema and its blessings the essential Jewish ideas of creation, revelation, and redemption.

The Ahavah Rabbah prayer, coming immediately before the Shema, has its own triple transformation.  The prayer begins by likening the expansive love God has for God’s creatures to the love of a parent for a child.  Far from abstract, this love is embodied in the traditions of the Jewish People.  It empowers a process of li’lmod u’le’lamed, of learning and teaching, that begins with listening (li’shmo-ah), attentiveness to detail (le’haskil), and understanding (le’havin) that becomes Torah in its broadest sense.

Yet, this pattern of Jewish learning is hardly self-contained.  It practically begs for transformation into a pattern of Jewish and ethical living.  The last three verbs lishmore, la’asot , u’l’kayem guide this process of transformation.  We are called upon to treasure (li’shmor), do (la’asot) and make tangible, real, and enduring (l’kayem) all of the words of Torah so as to create a sustainable pattern of Jewish living.

As the pandemic unfolded, we had the motivation of la’asot, to do, simply to follow the directive of mask wearing, few if any questions asked.  We further honored it with the patina of authority, a bit of li’shmor, guardianship and endorsement of social or governmental expectations or directives.  But as so often happens in a society where obligations are often voluntary (I know this is paradoxical), we haven’t taken the final step of making this u’l’kayem, an ongoing practice.

Of course that is the great danger, isn’t it?  That we will give up on what is necessary and life-affirming in the long run through sheer emotional and spiritual exhaustion?

What do you think?

Jeffrey Schein can be reached at