I’m in trouble. Today is the Day of Judgment, and I’ve committed a number of infractions. Well, we all have, but some of mine were done as “the Rabbi.” Some of you may not have realized that what you did was wrong. But wrongs I committed – as Rabbi- were all done knowingly. God probably expected more of me, and is probably less likely to let me of the hook.
Here’s the situation: It was March, and the Pandemic reared its ugly head. We decided we had to close the Temple. No Hebrew School, No Social events, No services. Yet this was precisely the time that people needed their Temple the most: A place to come together to find solace and comfort from one another, and a place to come to speak to God using the powerful and poetic words of our Tradition. We set up a lap top computer on a lectern on the Bimah and began live streaming our daily evening and Sunday morning services.
The problem was on Shabbat. As a Conservative synagogue, we’re committed to Halakha- Jewish Law. And it’s pretty clear that turning on the computer and broadcasting our services on Friday night and Saturday morning is a violation. A bigger violation is encouraging people at home to violate Shabbat by accessing our feed As the Mara d’Atra- the Halakhic authority- I made a number of decisions. First, that this was Sha’at Ha-d’hak: Literally “a pressing hour”, an emergency situation. I felt that having people connect to the Temple, and to Tradition, and to God in this moment in history took precedence over three thousand years of Shabbat restrictions. I wasn’t abolishing the rules, I was suspending them for the duration of the emergency.
After our first broadcast, it became clear to me that people sitting at home, without Siddurim to recite the prayers, or Humashim to follow the Torah reading, were not likely to sit through a two and a quarter hour service. I cut it down to ninety minutes. To do that I had to leave out whole sections of traditional prayers. For example, on a Saturday morning, before we get to the Sh’ma, we recite fifteen psalms, known as P’sukei d’Zimra. During normal times, in in order to complete those 15 poems, we “daven” them as quickly as possible. (Imagine how long it would take to read, comprehend, and truly appreciate fifteen of Shakespeare’s sonnets; how much longer would it take for poems in a foreign language!) I’ve never been happy “speed-reading” the opening psalms, but I was caught between a rock and a hard place: Doing a complete service, while making sure the service didn’t drag on for three plus hours. After forty years, I was never happy with what I did. But now, with larger issues before me, I decided each week to focus on just one psalm. Better a little with meaning than everything without; Less is More. This section was reduced in time by ten minutes; more importantly, those who followed that week’s psalm walked away- I hope- with a better understanding of what the poet was feeling, and what he or she wanted us to feel.
The Sh’ma is a core of our liturgy, and its three paragraphs were kept intact. But the Sh’ma is surrounded by pages of meditations. All of that, except for the three actual blessings, were skipped.
Without a congregation in the pews, there was no need to formally parade around the Sanctuary with the Torah. We cut out Ein Kamokha and V’yihi Binsoa’a HaAron, as well as Yehallelu and Etz Hayyim.
When there isn’t a minyan present, you don’t read from the Torah scroll. Instead, we read the portion from the Humash. And of course, without congregants present, no one could be called up to the Torah for an Aliyah. We thus didn’t have the eight (or at a Bar Mitzvah, ten) repetitions of the Torah blessings.
Another core of the service is the Amidah. Usually, people recite it first silently, and then the Cantor repeats it. This originated at a time when books were very rare, and most people didn’t know the prayers by heart. So the Cantor had to repeat all the words out loud for those who were unable to recite them on their own. The silent meditation gave everyone an opportunity to add their own personal prayers to God. Now, via live stream, we eliminated the repetition and simply recited the entire Amidah out loud. It cut the time almost in half, although, regrettably, it did take away the programmed-in chance for people to add their own silent prayers. During evening services, the Amidah is traditionally never repeated out loud; but again, when most people don’t have books, they would be lost. So we decided to break with tradition by reciting the evening Amidah entirely out loud.
Here’s another change we made: Our Torah reading follows the Triennial cycle; we read a third of the portion each week. But we’ve always read the full Haftarah. This had more to do with the fact that we didn’t want to let Bar and Bat Mitzvah kids off the hook by shortening the portions they had to learn. If your Haftarah portion was Kedoshim, you lucked out: Only 9 verses. But if your date landed on B’Shallach, you had to learn 55 sentences! But something just didn’t make sense: The Torah reading, from the first five books of the Bible, is clearly more sacred than the Haftarah, from the middle section of the Bible- the Prophets. Yet we abbreviate the Torah and insist on a full Haftarah. Now, during the pandemic, I used the opportunity to abbreviate the Prophets as well.
In the absence of a Minyan, we don’t recite certain prayers: Barchu, the Kedushah, the Hatzi Kaddish and the Full Kaddish, and as I said, we don’t read from the Torah scroll with multiple aliyot and blessings. We maintained that practice as we live streamed.
Finally, one more change- perhaps my biggest infraction. Without a minyan present, you’re also not supposed to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. We do it anyway. Let me tell you why. More than thirty-five years ago, a family arrived at Friday night services to say Kaddish- they had yahrzeit. I was young, and fresh out of school, and I knew the rules; “Sorry, we can’t say Kaddish.” The family rarely came to services, but when they did come, they needed to say Kaddish. I tried to explain the rules, and their reason: The Rabbis wanted us, as we dealt with loss, to be with a community of other people. And Jews define a community as “ten.” They didn’t want people to stay home, and remain alone and isolated. Now if you show up on a Tuesday, and there’s only eight people present, we could make phone calls. But not on Shabbat. The congregant let me know what she thought of the rules, of the Temple, and of the Rabbi. I’m not sure we ever saw them again. Now the tradition provides alternatives to reciting Kaddish in the absence of a minyan: You could say the El Maleh prayer, which doesn’t require a minyan. You could perform a mitzvah, like giving to Tzedakah, which is considered even greater than saying the Kaddish. Our Siddur, Lev Shalem, has created a substitute prayer that sounds somewhat like Kaddish. But as Rabbi, I have decided that we will always recite the Kaddish, even if we don’t have a minyan. Reciting the Mourner’s Prayer is of such emotional importance to people, that they won’t be swayed by the rules, or the reasons behind them. I think I understand my people, and where they are coming from. I’ve tried for forty years to teach them the right thing to do, but most don’t listen. So I’ve given in. Does that make me a courageous iconoclast and dynamic innovator, or merely a weak and irresponsible custodian of a 3000 year old Tradition? That is something that I struggle with all the time.
Orthodox Jews didn’t have any halakhic dilemmas during the pandemic: You don’t live stream on Shabbat. Period. If the Governor forbids gatherings of ten people for any reason, you can’t come to shul and you can’t say Kaddish; you pray by yourself at home.
Reform Jews didn’t have any halakhic dilemmas during the pandemic: Ritual regulations are not as important, or as binding, as ethical injunctions, and, they believe, the prohibition against the use of electricity on Shabbat makes no sense in the 21st century.
Conservative Judaism is the approach that is caught in the middle: How do you maintain tradition and still live in the modern world? And under what circumstances can you make changes? Driving on Shabbat to get to services when you live in the suburbs? Ordaining women as Rabbis and Cantors? Allowing a Jewish wedding ceremony for two people who are gay? Using a computer on Shabbat to live stream a service? Constituting a minyan over the internet when the ten people are in ten different places?
Hopefully, the Pandemic will soon become just a bad memory, and life will get back to normal. We wonder how our lives will be different: No more snow days off from school when you can have zoom classes? More people working from home instead of commuting to work? More doctors appointments via teleconferencing instead of in the office?
And how will the Coronavirus pandemic of 2020 change synagogue life? Maybe all services should be shorter, even when people can come to the Temple. Maybe we should always live stream our prayers- for those who are ill, or for family and friends of the Bar Mitzvah or Baby naming who live out of town?
I said before that I was suspending the rules, not abolishing them. When the “All-Clear” is finally sounded, will the congregants allow the Rabbi to restore things as they used to be? Or once an exception is made, you’re stuck; the barn door has been opened and the horse has escaped.
I’ll tell you my biggest fear: Will people decide that they somehow managed without the Temple during the virus, so why do they need it now? Why bother with membership, with dues, with Hebrew School, with carpools. We don’t need the building and we do need the clergy. We live in a D.I.Y. ”Do It Yourself” world and everything you need can be found at your fingertips on your computer. Which is why I need to thank all of you who have stuck by us during these difficult months, and who continue to support us. We learned that you wear a mask to protect other people; similarly, you join a Temple even if you may not need it; others in the Jewish community do.
Well, I’ve confessed my sins (if that’s you want to call them), or my “rule-bending”, (if that’s what you think it is). It being Judgment Day, I expect to have to explain myself to God. I’m not sure that I can tell Him I’m sorry; we were faced with an emergency, and I did what I thought best under the circumstances. I’d probably do it all over again.
I could be in trouble; I hope you’ll put in a good word for me.