“Hey, great to see you!” a friend of mine said the other day, extending his hand to me in friendship and greeting. I paused for a moment, and he went, “Right! We shouldn’t do that now.” It’s amazing how in the wake of the virus COVID-19, or coronavirus, in just a short couple of weeks, people have become so much more intentional about not just their physical health, but their social interactions, as well.

After all, the coronavirus — like almost everything in nature — doesn’t really care about our human wants, needs or fears. Microbes don’t think about local, state or national boundaries — they will hitch a ride on anything they can. But while the coronavirus lives in the world as a physical reality, we humans also live in the world filled with social realities. Emile Durkheim, one of the preeminent scholars of sociology, coined the idea of a “social fact,” such as laws, marriage, religion, money and politics. Unlike the coronavirus, which is a physical entity, social facts are real only in the imaginations of human beings. Yet these “facts” have just as much of an impact on our lives as scientific facts, and we’re now seeing how the coronavirus is leading us to think — and rethink — those social facts as well. 

Some of the most visible and recognizable ways in which we create and perform social facts are through rituals. They marry us, bury us, and mark life changes. They are communal. And most importantly, rituals are physical. From clearly religious rituals, like the Passing of the Peace in churches or Jews kissing the Torah scroll on Shabbat, to more secular ones, like shaking hands in greeting or high-fives after a sports game, ritual is often played out through physical connection. 

The problem is, most social rituals involve our hands, and as this tweet reminds us, with the coronavirus, “touching hands” is a really bad idea right now:


The need to rethink rituals has even impacted the Israeli chief rabbinate, which recommended that people stop kissing the mezzuzah — a ritual many traditional Jews do without even thinking:

In these days, where sadly we see the spread of a terrible disease, there can be no doubt one should not kiss mezuzot or even touch them. It is enough for a person to reflect on the verses written in the scroll when he enters or departs from a place and these thoughts will accompany him on his way.

Rituals transform social facts into physical realities, and so the coronavirus is forcing us to change, adapt, or maybe even lose some of those concrete and physical connections. Indeed, the biggest fear I’m seeing on my social media feed is not the virus itself, but the isolation stopping its spread would entail.

Yes, the coronavirus is scary. Yes, we don’t know how bad it will get. So listen to experts. Follow medical recommendations. Wash your hands. Do whatever you can to stay healthy. But as we take those steps, let’s also use this as an opportunity to recognize that we live in two different realities, both scientific and social. We can’t just focus on maintaining physical health, but need to consider our social health, as well. 

We’re going to have to change our rituals, at least temporarily. There might be a sense of loss, or some pushback, or even a few moments of awkwardness. But this will also give us an opportunity to rethink those rituals — how can we connect with each other emotionally, if we can’t do it physically? If we have to shorten a Torah processional or a Passing of the Peace, what are the new ways we can make those moments more meaningful? 

The unknown — especially when it comes to disease — is always scary. But rituals are designed to help us live with the uncertainty of the world. So, as many religious leaders are suggesting,  as our rituals change in response to the coronavirus, let’s use this as an opportunity to help us reflect on what these rituals mean. They are tools to help us connect, to reflect, to discover deeper meaning. The key is not the ritual itself, but how it concretizes our need for community, for love, and for support. We might need new or different rituals, but we will always need our communities. 

If we can focus on that, it will help all of us to stay healthy — not just physically, but socially, as well. 

Handshake image by Amtec Photos