Sunday, March 15, 2020

Statement on Prayer & Coronavirus

The ability to offer live-streamed services as a response to the current Coronavirus Outbreak demonstrates the wonders of modern technology.  It is also wrong.  

For religious, communal, and historical reasons, live-streaming services remotely, both for weekdays as well as Shabbat, is not the answer to foster the prayer life of Jews and provide comfort during this time of sickness and uncertainity the likes of which most Americans have never faced.  

While sharing with you the reasons Jewish law forbids such actions, I also hope to offer ways in which Jewish ritual and Jewish beliefs can yet guide, strengthen and inspire us.  It seems to me at such a time we need to take the "full," the "extra-strength," "dose" of Judaism, not a diluted or watered-down portion.

I'd be a fool to believe that even committed Jews all refrain from using electricity and electronic devices on Shabbat. And as the world becomes more and more connected and the devices around us grow ever "smarter," the challenges of a Shabbat without any electronics will only grow.  Nevertheless, using electricity, typing, establishing a connection to the internet, adjusting volumes and more can at best only be defended in the most lenient interpretations of Shabbat laws, and truly cannot really be defended at all.  At least not for the standards of the community at large.

While it is commonly known that pikuach nefesh docheh hashabbat, that "saving a life transcends Shabbat" that is clearly not what is at stake when a congregation decides to offer remote access services.  A person quarantined with the virus and sick will not be "saved" from their illness because streaming services are provided to them, how much the more for those not sick at all.  

Even on weekdays, there are still reasons virtual services cannot be allowed.  We understand worship with a minyan to require the members of that minyan to be present together, responding to the live and direct voice of the one leading.  As is well known, you are not hearing the actual voice of the person praying when you are listening remotely.  Communal prayer is meant to be just that, communal.

Does this mean a person cannot fulfill the obligation to pray?  Of course not!  In fact, saying the prayers as an individual or family, even without a minyan, may be an opportunity for spiritual growth and closeness to God that being in the synagogue may not offer.  Anyone who has been in a shivah home (house of mourning), praying in that immediate and intimate setting can attest to the fact that "home prayer" in fact is quite powerful.  Putting on a tallit, kippah, tefillin, picking up the siddur, praying in some corner of the home, may in fact be among the only good results of the situation in which we now find ourselves.  Across the Movements of Judaism, wonderfully detailed prayer books exist offering much instruction and guidance to their users.  

Furthermore, when it comes to Shabbat, so many of the most spiritual uplifting aspects of Shabbat do not take place in the syngagogue anyway.  Lighting candles, making kiddush, blessing one's chidren, eating together, spending family time, these are all not just available to us at home, but meant to beautify and sanctify our homes.  

What of the person who seeks to say Kaddish?  While this can be the most challenging, reciting psalms, or one of the innovative prayers to be recited when a minyan cannot be formed, lighting the yahrzeit candle, or making a donation online (when it's not Shabbat) are all powerful ways to honor one's obligations to one's departed loved ones.
From a social perspective today, who is it who would be recorded at these services for others to watch?  While much of the focus of discussion has been on those at home watching the service, what of those leading the service "IRL" as the cool kids say?  Would the services not be conducted by rabbis, cantors, and other, likely as not, observant Jews?  I certainly cannot speak for anyone but myself, but as much as I feel it my obligation to serve the members of the Jewish community even at the expense of my own comfort and convenience, the considerations one's own integrity seems not unreasonable to factor in when making a decision like this.  

Furthermore, I sincerely question whether or not Jews who strive to be observant would be comfortable watching services online and at the same time, if those Jews otherwise unacustomed to attending services would find remote-access services anymore compelling in which to partake.
During the cholera pandemic of the early 19th century, in which hundreds of thousands of people died yearly from the disease and economic activity was disrupted around the world, the Chatam Sofer, a leading rabbi (albeit a reactionary one to innovations to Judaism in those days) made precisely the same suggestion offered here, that Jews should pray at home in order to avoid exposure to illness.  The great ethicist, Rabbi Israel Salanter abridged Yom Kippur services so congregants "might take the air" and avoid being in close quarters the whole day.  Some suggest he may have also encouraged eating before the end of Yom Kippur, but reports of this are not clear, and while limited in application, eating during a fast day even as holy as Yom Kippur is allowed according to classical sources when life is truly at stake.

We see this same issue arise during the times of the Shoah when, in the Kovno Ghetto, Rabbi Ephraim Oshry instructed Jews then in the Ghetto's hospital to eat on Yom Kippur even though they protested when the doctor previously had told them to do so.  Poignantly, a patient did die, one who had not been religious earlier in life still insisted on fasting so that he might seek God's forgiveness for the many sins of his earlier life and meet God as a repentant Jew.  

If in those, far more dire circumstances, our ancestors were loathe to violate Jewish law, and to limit concessions to actually preserving life, how could we believe we should go further in transgressing Jewish law when in less overall danger?

  • I hope you will develop your personal prayer life, find ways to observe Shabbat at home, and in general be a kind and generous person during this time.  
  • It is my plan during the coming weeks to offer a weekly Shabbat message.  
  • The congregation is putting into place ways to check in with members to see how people are managing and to offer what assistance might be possible and appropriate.  
  • Follow the included links from a vareity of Conservative and other Jewish sites for guidance, texts and more to observe Shabbat at home: 

May our committment to Jewish life be source of strength and hope at this and all time.  May God protect and preserve you and your family, all the Jewish People, all the People of the United States and all the People of the World during this most trying of times.  

Rabbi Aaron Benson

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