Will technology make halacha irrelevant? That was the question Moshe Koppel, emeritus professor of math and computer science at Bar-Ilan University and author of Judaism Straight Up, posed during a recent lecture in Jerusalem to mark 10 years since my friend Jeremy Barkan passed away. 

Prof. Moshe Koppel

“Every generation thinks that they’re at an inflection point,” Koppel began his talk. And while there are very few actual such turning events in history, “I believe we are now at an inflection point, one that has implications for halacha.”

The trigger is “value malleability, where the values that have long been held by societies are changing,” Koppel said, citing religion in decline, lower birth rates and gender fluidity.

This is fueled further by technology, which is also at an inflection point. Koppel outlined four areas where technology could change the way Jews observe the law. 

1. Self-driving cars. No observant Jew is going to knowingly speed off in a car on Shabbat. But what if the car doesn’t have a driver but just arrives at a pre-determined time? The door opens automatically, and the vehicle departs with no action on the passenger’s part. 

Let’s take it one step further, Koppel suggested. What if some futuristic wearable device could read your mind wirelessly, “so all you need to do is think and stuff is going to happen?” If you conjure in your mind the thought, “I need a car at 2 pm on Saturday afternoon,” but you don’t open any app or tap any buttons, are you still breaking halacha?

2. Lab-grown meat. Cultured chicken and beef are better for the planet – no need to dedicate acres of land for farms, no more cow farts contributing to climate change – and better for our bodies (no antibiotics required). 

Some top Israeli rabbinic authorities, including David Stav, Oren Duvdavani, Moshe Bigel and Yuval Cherlow, have even deemed meat grown in a lab to be “parve,” since no living animal need be shechted (slaughtered according to Jewish ritual) and the cultivation process uses embryonic stem cells rather than muscle tissue. (Embryos are considered a separate entity from the mother, according to halacha.)

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau agrees. Last week he issued a ruling that Israeli startup Aleph Farms’ cultured steaks are indeed parve – although they must be marketed as a “meat alternative” to not cause kosher consumers to inadvertently sin by mixing meat and milk.

Still, “if there’s only synthetic meat in the world, then most of kashrut doesn’t matter anymore,” Koppel suggested. You can eat a cheeseburger or some Häagen-Dazs after cholent and you’ll still be within kosher guidelines.

3. Education. The university world has typically “been hostile to haredi (ultra-Orthodox) values,” Koppel said. But now it’s possible to “just go online and watch a recording of the best courses at MIT. You don’t need to be part of university culture. So, the ultra-Orthodox will soon be able to get a university education without paying a price.” 

By price, Koppel is referring to the attacks those in the haredi world might receive if caught studying outside the walls of the yeshiva.

Nor are the benefits of online learning limited to the Orthodox. We have friends whose three children all received degrees from Harvard almost entirely by attending courses on the Internet. 

At some point in the future, we may not even need to attend online classes. Like the “mind-reading” device for self-driving cars but in reverse, a computer-human interface could pump knowledge directly into the brain. 

4. Artificial intelligence. In a phone interview after the talk, I asked Koppel about ChatGPT, the artificial intelligence chatbot that’s taken the Internet by storm. ChatGPT is nearly good enough already to answer the kinds of basic questions about halacha that used to be the exclusive domain of one’s rabbi, Koppel explained.

“There will always be the hard questions requiring someone with human insights and sensitivity,” Koppel added. “But 99% of questions are basically ‘look up’ queries, which someone who knows their way around Jewish texts could answer.” Those are perfect for AI tools like ChatGPT.

Is there a point when things become too easy?

We already see that happening with other aspects of technology. Do you remember your friends’ phone numbers anymore? Or do you simply scroll for their name and tap your phone? 

Ditto for navigation. 

Uri Levine, founder of Waze, writes in his new book, Fall in Love with the Problem Not the Solution, about a time he asked his son to drive him to the airport.

“I can’t, Dad,” he told Levine. “My phone is broken. How will I get there without GPS?”

“I’ll be in the car with you,” Levine responded. “I know the way.”

“But Dad,” the son retorted, “how will I get back home?”

The bottom line is this: If you take away – or at least fundamentally alter – Shabbat, kashrut, education and rabbinic authority, what allure – if any – will a future Orthodoxy “that’s become too thin,” in Koppel’s words, have in the brave new technological world? 

The rabbis will, of course, push back. 

“There are two issues they need to address,” Koppel told me. “The strictly technical – like whether lab-grown meat is kosher and parve – and questions of public policy,” how their congregants should behave. “It’s possible some rabbis will conclude they need to remain strict against certain things,” even where there is a reasonable argument to permit them.

Koppel believes, however, that “the rabbis will need to stretch a little on the technical side in order to get to where they want on the public policy questions.”

How that stretching will evolve in the years to come will be among the most fascinating deliberations in the coming clash between halacha and technology.

The video for Koppel’s talk at Jeremy’s memorial is here.

I first explored how technology and halacha intersect for The Jerusalem Post.

Moshe Koppel headshot is byrebecca2

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Flee or fight?

by Brian on January 15, 2023

in In the News,Politics

Flee or fight? It’s a question I’m hearing a fair amount these days following the formation of Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right coalition of fearmongers.

The debate is whether we’ve reached – or soon will reach – a tipping point where the Israel we know and love is no longer recognizable, and what the best response should be. Can we still fight the disenfranchisement that spews from the mouth of our newly elected representatives, or should we throw in the towel and start over somewhere else?

Spoiler alert: I’m staunchly in the fight vs. flight camp. But I’d be disingenuous if I didn’t admit that I sometimes wonder what it would take to make me leave this place.

My wife, Jody, and I both agreed that if at some point the non-Orthodox Jewish communities of which we are proud members – Kehilat Tzion and Nava Tehila in Jerusalem – were banned, we might not be able to see our future here.

Other issues are repugnant to us, too – unilateral West Bank annexation, doctors and merchants receiving legal sanction to refuse services to people whose lifestyles go against their religious beliefs – but where we pray is a particularly personal trigger.

Karl Popper in his book The Open Society and its Enemies writes about “the tolerance paradox” where “unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance.” That is, “if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.”

The flipside: that same intolerance may very well result in enough infighting and mistrust within the coalition that it won’t see out a full term. As Yossi Klein Halevi notes in The Times of Israel, “Sooner or later this coalition will unravel. The nature of hatred and greed is to turn against itself.”

Let’s say that the government does implode on its own and, this time, when the opposition returns, propelled by a public so disgusted by the desire to return Israeli Judaism “to the ghetto,” as The Jerusalem Post’s Amotz Asa-El described it, it wins a comfortable majority. Is it time to rethink our political system? 

Yes, we’ve tried that before – who can forget the change to direct election of the prime minister in the 1990s? That ultimately backfired and the law was subsequently reversed. 

But times are different now. The system is so clearly broken, we may have no choice but to fix it. 

Cantonization may be the answer – not between Israel and the Palestinians, but within Israel itself, where disparate and bickering geographic regions would be granted the ability to govern themselves as they wish, while a national government would still provide security and other services.

Haaretz writer Carlo Strenger described the canton plan in 2014. 

“Like in Switzerland, Germany and the U.S. [where individual states often have very different policies towards their citizens], the central government’s responsibility and authority should be cut back to the domains that can only be dealt with nationally, like the military, nationwide transportation and ecological management. The rest should be delegated to smaller units.”

This kind of approach “could create a more livable status quo,” he added in an article he penned for the Swiss website, Journal21.ch. “Only cantonization will prevent Israel from devouring itself from within.”

So, if the fundamentalist ultra-Orthodox (haredim) and National Religious of Jerusalem want to run the country’s capital according to Jewish Law, let them do so with their own locally-elected officials. Let them collect taxes and pick up the garbage and tear down illegal construction in their own communities.

The same goes for Tel Aviv or the North or the South of the country. Public transportation on Shabbat would finally become a reality. There would be no more fights over closing restaurants and shops on the day of rest. Reform rabbis could marry whomever they wanted in the canton of Greater Gush Dan. 

I would even be willing to leave Jerusalem and move to the center of the country to actualize such a plan.

If this sounds like the plot of a dystopian TV series, you wouldn’t be wrong. The Israeli show Autonomies posited an even more extreme version of this scenario, where a purely halachic state of Judea with Jerusalem as its capital is separated completely from the rest of the country, not just as a connected canton. 

Naturally, things don’t go as expected (it’s a TV drama, after all). But the very real demographic trends upon which that program based its predictions seem unstoppable. By 2050, haredim will account for close to a third of Israel’s Jewish population. (According to data from the Central Bureau of Statistics released earlier this month, 16% of the total population of Israel is on track to become ultra-Orthodox by the end of this decade.) 

In that case, will there be enough haredi men in the workforce to pay taxes (don’t even get me started about army service), or will Israel become a failed state, as analysts like Dan Ben-David, president of the Shoresh Institute for Socioeconomic Research, regularly forecast?

The last few years of elections have been all about two camps: Right and Left, pro-Bibi or “change.” Shmuel Rosner suggests that’s not the right way of seeing what’s happening in Israel today. There is the “everything-will-be-okay” camp and the “we-are-headed-for-a-cliff” camp, he writes in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal. 

I want to believe, perhaps naively, that everything can still be OK. But it won’t happen by burying our heads in the sand. Cantonization is just one idea. 

So, I turn the question over to you, dear readers: What are you going to do to fight and not flee?

I first questioned whether to flee or fight at The Jerusalem Post.

Photo by Levi Meir Clancy on Unsplash

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Charmed in Sharm

by Brian on January 7, 2023

in A Parent in Israel,Reviews,Travel

In 2005, my family and I spent a week touring Egypt. We started in Cairo, where we visited the pyramids, the Sphynx and the Egyptian Museum, then took the night train to Luxor to explore the exquisite tombs in the Valleys of the Kings and Queens, before finishing up in Aswan with a felucca ride on the Nile and a tour of Elephantine Island with its ancient Jewish presence. 

Beach view from the Montemare Resort in Sharm el-Sheikh

Throughout the trip we interacted with Egyptian merchants, restaurateurs, tour guides and drivers. 

One thing we were warned to never mention was that we were Israeli.

Our guide in Cairo, Ahmed, was a lovely man – personable and great with the kids, who were preteens at the time. We told him we were Jewish but not where we lived. When we finally spilled the Israeli hummus beans at the very end of the trip, he commented, disturbingly, “I enjoyed our time together, and you’re very nice people, but I really don’t like Israelis.” 

Seventeen years later, we returned to Egypt, this time to Sharm el-Sheikh, the desert oasis that has arisen in the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula.

Our reception as Israelis this time couldn’t have been more different.

When we were asked where we were from and we answered “Israel,” we were greeted warmly, often with a halting Hebrew “baruch haba” (welcome) or “ma nishma” (how are you?).

“We are so happy Israelis are returning to Sharm,” we heard on more than one occasion. 

That might be a reference to the fact that direct flights from Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport to Sharm el-Sheikh are now offered by several Israeli airlines. We flew El Al (via its Sun Dor subsidiary) outbound and returned on Israir. 

Taking the plane to Sharm is not cheap – we paid close to $400 a ticket including cancelation insurance and several checked bags for our party of six – but the hour-and-20-minute flight is much more convenient than driving to Eilat, waiting in the unpredictable line to cross the border at Taba, and then arranging for a three-hour taxi ride on twisty-turvy roads. All the more so if you’re traveling with a baby, as we were.

Sharm el-Sheikh is nearly exclusively a tourist town. It didn’t even exist before Israelis established the Ofira settlement there in 1969. Israel left Sharm in 1982, following the Camp David peace accords. Unlike the Sinai’s other well-known settlement, Yamit, which was demolished, Ofira remains intact and is now home to local Egyptian residents. 

In contrast to Sinai hot-spots such as Dahab and Nuweiba with their budget-friendly “hut-on-the-beach” vibes popular with young Israelis, Sharm el-Sheikh, which stretches for some 20 kilometers, is chock-a-block filled with sprawling resorts. The top-of-the-line is the Four Seasons (which Jane Medved wrote about here), but you can get good value for money at one of the properties in the Sunrise chain. 

Five-star resort at a reasonable price

The five-star Sunrise Montemare Grand Select, where we stayed, runs around $150 a night per room, for bed and breakfast. In Eilat, on the Israeli side of the border, a similar hotel would be at least double that price. 

The Montemare, like many of the resorts in Sharm, is built on a hill. As you walk down from the reception area to the beach, you’ll pass six large pools, some heated, one with water slides, and enough lounge chairs so that none of the guests in the property’s 280 rooms ever feels crowded out. 

The resort used to be for adults only, but when Covid decimated the travel business (tourism to Sharm was down some 70% in 2020), the Montemare and its sister Sunrise properties opened up to kids; there’s a nice playground with climbing structures, a “Kids Planet” with activities for four- to 12-year-olds, and even a “kids disco” every evening. Don’t want to climb back from the beach to your room with a tired toddler? There’s a free shuttle bus that comes by every 10 minutes.

Mini-golf (toddler not included)

Want to play mini-golf? The Montemare’s got that covered, too.

The breadth of the breakfast buffet was on par with the typical Israeli morning feast – although, spoiler alert, you don’t go to Sharm for the food, which was decidedly bland and, aside from a small corner with falafel and fava beans, catered more to international than local tastes.

Sharm el-Sheikh’s bread and butter visitors come from Europe where the promise of mild temperatures in the midst of winter has proven enticing. Russian is the primary language heard (the evening entertainment at our resort was entirely in that Slavic tongue), although since the war in Ukraine, travel from that part of the world has dropped – perhaps another reason the local merchants were so happy to greet us as Israelis. 

Putin’s war has been tough for Sharm tourism for another reason: Flights from Russia only restarted in 2021 after a six-year ban following the 2015 downing of a Russian aircraft by the Sinai branch of ISIS, killing all 224 passengers and crew.

Beyond the resort

While we spent most of our time at the Montemare hanging out by the pool with the baby, there’s plenty to do in Sharm itself – at least for a few days (I wouldn’t recommend staying more than a week, tops.) 

Sahaba Mosque in Old Market

The Old Market has gift shops and restaurants, although given that Sharm only really got going in 1982, it can hardly be considered “old.” The area is dominated by the iconic Sahaba Mosque, which is free to visit.

Nearby Na’ama Bay (developed by the Israelis prior to 1982) has the same kinds of shops and eateries but without the bargaining endemic to the Old Market. Another shopping sector, Soho Square, is an upscale Las Vegas-style mall, complete with a musical fountain, although it pales in comparison with the Bellagio’s dancing waters in Las Vegas.

One benefit to our resort’s location was that it was walking distance to the Pickalbatros Aqua Park, which boasts over 50 different water slides for all ages and has been dubbed “the largest in the Middle East.” Even the baby got a turn on his mother’s lap on one of the kiddy shoots. The $40 per person entrance fee includes lunch and unlimited ice cream and soft drinks. 

Pickalbatros Aqua Park

The main course: Snorkeling and diving at Ras Mohammed

Sharm’s main attraction, of course, is what’s under the water – the snorkeling and diving is among the world’s best. We booked a half-day tour to Ras Mohammed National Park, just 30 minutes south of our resort, and the fish and coral were the best I’ve ever seen. (Tiran Island, which we didn’t visit, reportedly has the wildest, most colorful reefs.)

Family in front of the “Gate of Allah” in Ras Mohammed National Park

The water in the Red Sea in the winter is cold, so we rented wetsuits. Our snorkeling guide pulled a floating ring which we clung to, so no one got lost as we ventured further out into the sea. You can visit Ras Mohammed by boat or land; the snorkeling areas are very close to the shore. We opted for the latter ($35 a person, gear extra). 

It was a windy day when we visited Ras Mohammed and the waves were pretty choppy. As I was attempting to get out of the water, I removed my flippers and suddenly felt an intense pain. Hoisting myself onto the beach, I gazed down at my foot, horrified. I must have gotten cut on some coral. The gash was deep, red and filled with sand and debris. 

Back at the tour van, a plethora of drivers and guides tended to me, cleaning and wrapping the wound. One driver who spoke no English repeatedly patted me on the shoulder. It was surprisingly comforting.

The cut required four stitches and a week’s course of penicillin. But the worst part: I couldn’t go back in any of the resort’s pools – let alone the Aqua Park. We had considered an excursion to Mount Sinai and the Saint Catherine Monastery, but my injured appendage put the kibosh on that, too. 

Foot with stitches

For visitors to Sharm el-Sheikh worried about Covid, my advice: Don’t go. We saw zero masks our entire time there. (Not some masks here or there, but literally zero.) Fortunately, this is an outdoorsy town, and the weather was comfortable enough, even at night, to eat mostly al fresco.

Sharm el-Sheikh was the host of the recent COP27 United Nations Climate Change conference – an ironic location in that Sharm has no public transportation and its desert setting means that most everything visitors need must be flown or trucked in. But the presence of high-profile delegations just a few weeks prior meant the place was spruced up and spotless.

The reception we received as Israelis was reminiscent of our experience visiting Dubai earlier this year – another Arab country welcoming its Jewish neighbors. It makes good business sense. Do we agree on politics? Probably not, but it never came up. 

The hospitality and service are top notch, the prices reasonable, and with fast flights, it’s relatively near to home.

Just watch out for the coral. It cuts equally, regardless of nationality.

If you go…

Final meal on the beach in Sharm el-Sheikh

In 2019, 1.4 million Israelis crossed into Sinai by car, according to the Israel Airports Authority, which oversees the Taba border, the main way into Sinai from the southern Israeli town of Eilat. Those numbers took a hit during the Covid-19 pandemic, with just 335,436 travelers making the journey in 2021. However, in 2022, the same number of tourists entered through the Taba crossing in just the first six months of the year, heralding a return to normal.

The overland crossing is popular but can be erratic, with wait times at Taba ranging from an hour to triple or more than that during high season. Except for the rare exception, most Israelis drive to Eilat, park their cars on the Israeli side of the border and take a taxi to their Sinai destination. After Taba comes Nuweiba (an hour and fifteen minutes’ drive), Dahab (two hours) and Sharm el-Sheikh (three hours).

Direct flights from Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport began in April 2022, El Al’s Sundor subsidiary, Israir and Arkia all service the route. Expect to pay between $150 and $400 round-trip depending on the season and whether you can travel with just a carry-on and no cancellation protection. The flights take an hour and 20 minutes, so even with the time to get to the airport in Tel Aviv in advance and collect luggage afterward in Sharm, it’s still far faster than the long drive and potentially longer wait.

Egypt grants visitors to the Sinai a 14-day visa for free as long as they stay in Sinai and don’t continue on to Egypt proper. Want to take the bus from Sinai to Cairo? Add $25 for a single-entry visa, $60 for multiple entries. Visas are issued on-the-spot at the airport in Sharm el-Sheikh or at the Taba border crossing. 

There are hundreds of resorts in Sharm el-Sheikh, ranging from budget places to over-the-top luxurious. The Sunrise and Pickalbatros chains offer excellent value for money. (The latter includes Sharm’s top water park, which bumps up the price a bit. The Rixos is an adult-only (18 and up) property. Most resorts offer an all-inclusive all-you-can-eat option, but our advice: Unless you enjoy gorging out on mediocre meals, choose just bed and breakfast plan and dine out at a more authentic restaurant in the Old Market, Soho Square or Na’ama Bay.

I first described our vacation in the Sinai for The Jerusalem Post.

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Hanukah has a bifurcated history. It’s a story of the Maccabean rebellion against the Jewish people’s then-Greek overlords, and at the same time, an apocryphal tale about a cruse of oil that lasted for eight days.

But Hanukah is also a warning for anyone looking at Israel today. Because behind the whole “noble Maccabees fighting the evil Seleucid Greeks” narrative is a much darker story – that of internecine, intra-Jewish fighting over the religious nature of this nascent nation.

And while it initially seemed to end well – the Maccabees defeated the Seleucids, ushering in 100 years of Hasmonean independence – the leadership in Israel quickly became deeply corrupt, setting up the ultimate defeat and expulsion of the Jews from the land of Israel by the Romans.

Are the same processes starting again now?

We like to imagine that the state of Israel in 2022 will be permanent and here forever. But that’s not what Jewish history has shown. Rather, our periods of true autonomy were relatively short.

Moreover, there appears to be something about those who opt for leadership in general – and Jewish leadership in particular – that leads to extremism. 

The similarities between then and now are simply too striking to ignore.

The Maccabees wanted Torah and Jewish Law to rule the land. Today?

“We would all like the state to act according to the Torah and halacha,” chairman of the Religious Zionist party Bezalel Smotrich said in 2019, before adding sheepishly that, “There are other people who think differently, and we need to get along with them.”

Bezalel Smotrich

But now, drunk with political power, Smotrich has returned to his incendiary ways. Referring to his incoming role as finance minister, he told the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) weekly magazine Mishpacha, “If we follow the Torah, we’ll be rewarded with financial abundance and a great blessing.”

Avi Maoz

Meanwhile, Avi Maoz, head of the horrendously homophobic Noam party, who incoming Prime Minister Benjamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu plans to put in charge of both “Jewish identity” and extracurricular programming in schools, stated that “Anyone who tries to harm real Judaism is the darkness. Anyone who tries to create a new so-called liberal religion is the darkness.” 

What a lovely message of light for Hanukah.

Then there are the haredim, who have never shied away from hurling invective on any politician or pundit who demands they provide more secular education for their underemployed masses. One of their coalition demands was that all mixed gender prayer at the Western Wall – including in the small egalitarian section – be nixed. 

Yitzhak Goldknopf

This comes on the heels of United Torah Judaism’s new leader, Rabbi Yitzhak Goldknopf declaring, in the run up to the elections, that he “never saw English and mathematics actually advance the country economically.” This while Goldknopf was expressing interest at the time in running the finance ministry.

The opposition to these inflammatory statements has come fierce and fast. 

— Outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party declared it would open a “hotline” for parents to report if schools are teaching hateful, intolerant material. 

— Over 50 municipalities have declared they will not comply with Maoz’s policies. 

— National Unity MK Gadi Eisenkot called for “a million people” to take to the streets in protest.

In a panic, Bibi has been telling journalists – primarily overseas – that Israel is not going to be governed by Talmudic law. His Diaspora interlocutors are desperate to believe in this highly improbable alchemy. 

That message hasn’t gotten through to Smotrich, Maoz and Goldknopf, apparently, who, at least so far, are plowing ahead with their attempts to impose a fundamentalist ideology on a resistant public. 

How did that work out last time?

When the pro-Athens High Priest Menelaus was reinstated in Jerusalem following Greek Emperor Antiochus’s missteps in failing to capture Egypt, Menelaus embarked on an aggressive operation to further Hellenize the Jews. 

That prompted Mattathias of Modi’in and his five sons to launch a guerrilla campaign – not as much against the Seleucids as their fellow Hellenized Jews. 

Menelaus, in response, summoned the Greek armies to Judea. The Maccabees managed to beat back multiple waves of Greek fighters until, in 167 BCE, Parthia attacked the Seleucid Empire. Antiochus was forced to refocus his troops and the Jews had an opening to retake Jerusalem, in 164 BCE. 

It took another 24 years before an independent Judea rose again, but it managed to stay free from foreign rule from 140 to 37 BCE.

It didn’t take long, though, before the Hasmoneans shamelessly grabbed power and combined the priesthood with kingship, becoming ever more corrupt and oppressive. By the time Herod rose to power; Jewish sovereignty was over. Soon, the Jews would be exiled entirely.

The uncomfortable question we must ask this Hanukah: Can it happen again?

Will the theocratic extremism of Smotrich, Maoz and Goldknopf result in another civil war between the Jews? 

Will our enemies take advantage of our infighting? 

Will our allies abandon us when the Jerusalem Pride Parade is canceled, or large swaths of the West Bank are annexed by those who believe it is “God-given?” (Note that I haven’t even mentioned Itamar Ben-Gvir here, since his main agenda, for the moment, is more about policing than religious coercion.)

Itamar Ben-Gvir

Or will the rapidly shrinking population of Jews in Israel who still support pluralism and democracy simply give up and leave?

Theodor Herzl wrote in his book The Jewish State, “Will we allow the priests of our religion to govern us? No! While faith is something that unites us, we must seek out – with force – wisdom and sciences.”

We may be too late. And this time, I’m afraid, not even a miracle of oil will save us.

I first compared Hanukah past and present at The Jerusalem Post.

Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

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Covid is finally over. How do I know? I took my mask off. 

The last of the masks?

Not everywhere, but in more places than I have before – at a hotel, while dining indoors, during a packed lecture, picking up The Jerusalem Post from my local Steimatzky bookstore.

Of course, I know that Covid is not really over. People are still getting sick every day. The U.S. is on track to see 150,000 Covid deaths this year. (If current numbers hold, Israel will have just over 1,000 Covid deaths in the coming 12 months.) 

But at a certain point, despite the documented dangers, we have to make the switch to “live with Covid.” Not just in words but in deeds, too.

For many people, that moment came when indoor mask mandates were relaxed. My wife, Jody, and I held on for longer. Our turning point was the fifth vaccine, the Omicron booster, which we got a few weeks ago.

The feeling on that day was: We’ve done all we can do. This booster probably won’t prevent us from getting Covid again (Covid is likely to continue to infect 50% of us every year, according to Trevor Bedford, a virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center), but the cumulative effect is to make the disease less severe. 

Besides which, I had a pretty positive experience when I caught Covid in March and a dose of Paxlovid knocked out my mostly mild symptoms in under a week. So, my thinking went, I may be immunocompromised, but I survived it once, I will survive it again.

We’re still masking up on public transportation, on planes, in crowded locations. Which leads to an awkward place.

“Mask-wearing has been relegated to a sharply shrinking sector of society,” writes Katherine Wu in The Atlantic.“It has become, once again, a peculiar thing to do.”

How could it not when influential figures like U.S. President Joe Biden declare, as he did on TV’s 60 Minutes, that “the pandemic is over…if you notice, no one’s wearing masks.”

But wishful thinking is not epidemiological accuracy. Donald Trump was not some Greek Oracle when he proclaimed in 2020, “One day – it’s like a miracle – it will disappear.” No, you can’t will Covid out of existence; that’s not how viruses work. 

And long Covid remains a huge problem. 

An alarming study from Maccabi Healthcare Services, one of Israel’s largest HMOs, found that 34.6% of participants reported not returning to their baseline health condition some five months since recovery from Covid.

Nevertheless, masking – in America at least – is down to 29% of the population, compared with 50% to 80% in the first two years of the pandemic. 

“It feels like something that now needs an explanation,” a friend told Wu. “It’s like showing up in a weird hat and you have to explain why you’re wearing it.”

“It’s OK, you can take your mask off here,” has become an increasingly common refrain, even when it’s clearly not OK. 

I first encountered it during the height of the pandemic when I flew to Florida for my vitreoloysis treatment, an experimental laser procedure for eye floaters. The doctor, with whom I was in close physical contact, said just that while not wearing a mask himself (this despite the sign at the front door clearly stating masks must be donned). 

I wore my mask during the procedure and didn’t get Covid. Yet I felt a strong urge to conform. He was a doctor, after all. 

“You can feel when you’re the only one doing something,” immunocompromised physician Meghan McCoy told Wu for her Atlantic article. “It’s noticeable.”

McCoy noted that, typically, “there’s no big sign on our foreheads that says, ‘This person doesn’t have a functioning immune system.’” 

Masks now have kind of become exactly that kind of sign.

In our new post-Covid reality, masks draw attention, like a wheelchair, prosthetic device or service dog. They “invite compassion but also skepticism, condescension and invasive questions,” Wu writes. 

To go mask-free, by contrast, is like “reverting to a past that was safer, more peaceful,” Wu notes. “Discarding masks may feel like jettisoning a bad memory, whereas clinging to them reminds people of an experience they desperately want to leave behind.”

Don’t we all want that?

Well, yes…and no. 

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit it was exhilarating to eat in a restaurant again, to walk around a museum unencumbered by a tightly-tied Sonovia cloth. 

And yet, this “new normal” is also an admission that we’ve failed. 

— Failed to stop a virus that will now circulate among human beings forever. There are, after all, still DNA remnants of the 1918 flu pandemic in today’s annual flu outbreaks. 

— Failed to depoliticize science such that mask-wearing, along with vaccines, became not a matter of public safety but one of red vs. blue, right vs. left.

— Failed to embrace good governance over populism, vilification and victimization.

The other night, Jody and I went to the Yes Planet in Jerusalem to see Cinema Sabaya, Israel’s top Ophir award-winning film this year. We didn’t wear our masks – until we heard the man behind us coughing. We donned our cloths in the dark and felt somewhat more secure.

We’ll also wear our masks more consistently prior to a big event or vacation, so that we don’t get sick and miss out.

I wish Covid never came into our lives. Moreover, I wish masking could be a personal choice, free of stigma. 

Wu asked her mother, who lives in Taiwan, “How is masking going in Taipei?” 

It is still quite common in public spaces, even where it wasn’t mandated, her mother explained. 

When Wu asked why, her mother’s response was telling. 

“Why not?”

I first wondered if Covid was over at The Jerusalem Post.

Photo by Isaac Quesada on Unsplash.

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