I am taking advantage of my weekly column to repeat and amplify my remarks on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.
When Governor Murphy in early June opened houses of worship to 50 people or 25 percent of capacity, one congregant urged me to have services in the sanctuary, forwarding to me letter that Congregation Israel, the Orthodox synagogue in Springfield, circulated to its membership. In response, I calculated we could have services for 16 people spaced six feet apart, although on reflection many months later, I probably overestimated the number of congregants that could safely attend services in our small sanctuary. I didn’t mention the other reason why we would not have live services: we had been having Zoom services since March 21, and I periodically broached services in the sanctuary, and people were fearful and they voiced their objections. We have at the peak of high holy day services some 200 people. There is no way that we can accommodate 200 people safely, especially when we are singing, we need to be 16 feet apart.
We convened a Task Force to study options for the High Holy Days in early June, and we have been meeting weekly. Some synagogues are streaming services with the clergy in the sanctuary, and some synagogues invite a minyan into the sanctuary and broadcast the services by Zoom. We decided to hold live services by Zoom, and many people attended them last weekend.
Congregation Ahavas Sholom belongs to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and Conservative rabbis have a sort of a union, the Rabbinical Assembly. (Graduates of the Conservative seminaries are autonomically part of the Rabbinical Assembly after ordination; I am not a member of the Rabbinical Assembly because I was ordained by the Academy of Jewish Religion.) One component of the Rabbinical Assembly is the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which is as close to the Pope as we come in the Conservative Movement. The committee issues t’shuvot, rulings, on a variety of subjects prompted by questions submitted by Conservative synagogues, such as, do women count in a minyan, or can gay people be ordained. You can read these t’shuvot at https://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/jewish-law/committee-jewish-law-and-standards. They cover a broad variety of subjects and they are mostly very interesting. The beauty (or the ugliness) of the Conservative Movement is synagogues aren’t obligated to follow these t’shuvot; no synagogue will be excommunicated from the Conservative Movement for not following these t’shuvot.
On May 13, 2020, in the height of the pandemic, the committee issued a t’shuvah regarding streaming services of Shabbat and the holidays. I can sum up their conclusions in a couple of sentences.
One: if you don’t have a live minyan on Shabbat or the holidays, you can not recite Barchu, you can not read the Torah, with the appropriate blessings, you can not recite Kaddish, and you can not repeat the Amidah, no matter how many people zoom in. Halachically, you can’t do what we have been doing since March 21.
Two: you must not turn on electrical equipment or adjust the sound or make adjustments to the zoom settings from the onset of Shabbat or the holiday until the end of Shabbat or the holiday. Halachically, you can not mute people and unmute them. You can not use the chat function. You can not switch from the speaker view to the gallery view. You can not admit people who are in the waiting room. Halachically, you can’t do what we have been doing since March 21.
There were dissenters from the t’shuvah, but the dissenters toed a harder line. And that prompts me to bring up Hillel and Shammai.
As you know, Hillel and Shammai lived in the late first century b.c.e. and the early part of the first century c.e. They founded schools that bore their names, and Hillel and Shammai and the schools that bore their names after they died had a friendly (and, infrequently an unfriendly) rivalry. Shammai was a halachic hard-liner, and Hillel, although he adhered to halachah, often came down on the side of lenience.
For example, Shammai ruled that only worthy students could be admitted to study Torah, but Hillel said that anybody could be admitted to study Torah. Shammai ruled that when a husband did not return from a sea voyage and was presumed dead, the wife had to present irrefutable proof that the husband died before she could remarry. Hillel accepted indirect evidence of the husband’s death before the wife could remarry. (The most famous debate between Hillel and Shammai was regarding the order of the candle lighting on Hanukkah. Shammai wanted to start with eight candles and reduce them one at a time every day. [Shammai had a reason: the original Hanukkah was a substitute for Sukkot, and the Torah says on Sukkot that we sacrifice a number of animals on the first day, and we reduce the number of animals every successive day.] Hillel wanted to increase the number of candles [the way we do it now] because Hillel wanted to make every day brighter.) What would Hillel and Shammai make of the May, 2020 t’shuvah?
I am not a scholar of halachah. I am not a Talmudic scholar. Every member of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards is much smarter than I am and much more learned than I am. But I know that Judaism is all about preserving life, so not being a scholar, I think the committee missed the point. I have two criticisms of the May, 2020 t’shuvah.
We are not talking about a bedridden individual who can not attend services physically. (Maybe we can talk about that individual later.) We are talking about the entire world-wide population of Jews who cannot attend services physically because there is a good chance they will infect each other with a highly contagious disease. Jews need to pray with a community, and why we should not take advantage of technology to connect with each other in safety? We have been having Shabbat services since March 21 on Zoom, and we will jettison Zoom when it’s safe to go back to our small sanctuary. But everybody attending the services since March will tell you they are spiritually fulfilling.
The second criticism I have relates to exercise. Let’s suppose we’re about to begin to exercise after years of inactivity. Say we’re going to run, maybe a half mile for starters. We do our run every day for four days, but the fifth day, we wake up and it’s cold and rainy. So we think to ourselves, “I don’t want to get wet and cold,” and we stay in bed. On the sixth day, we wake up and it’s not raining, but it is cold. So we think to ourselves, “It’s cozy in bed; I don’t want to get cold.” And on the seventh, the alarm clock wakes us up at the appointed hour for exercise, and we just chuck it. We abandon our resolve to exercise.
If we have an excuse to not do something, it is easier to not do the same thing the next day, and it is still easier to not do the same thing the next day, until not doing something becomes the routine.
This pandemic prohibits us from meeting in person. Some synagogues’ sanctuaries are big enough to admit congregants far away enough from each other to be relatively safe, but some shuls, like ours, are not big enough to allow that. If we would follow the t’shuvah, we would not recite Kaddish, we would not repeat the Amidah, and we wouldn’t read Torah with the appropriate blessings, because we wouldn’t have a live minyan in the sanctuary. We would not be able to provide a High Holy Day experience, let alone a meaningful experience. In our case, should we follow the May, 2020 t’shuvah, some people would skip the High Holy Days entirely, because, what’s the point? And the next year, when we re-assembled in the sanctuary (God willing), those same people would likely skip the High Holy Days, like staying in bed when we intend to exercise. In my opinion, the t’shuvah encourages Jews not to celebrate the High Holy Days, because if we can’t assemble physically, what’s the point? The t’shuvah, in my opinion, promotes an entire generation of Conservative Jews to skip the High Holy Days next year because skipping the High Holy Days becomes routine.
I don’t know whether Shammai and Hillel would approve of the May, t’shuvah. Maybe Shammai, who was a hard-liner, would approve, but I think that Hillel, under these extraordinary circumstances, would endorse the Zoom services that we are holding, at least until we are able to assemble in person.