By Rabbi Levi Shemtov for the Jewish Journal
We are living such digital lives during these pandemic times that it’s worth reflecting on the notion of electrical energy. We can feel this energy even if we cannot see it flow. In the grid, energy providers are paid for what they provide, and users pay for their consumption — but the two do not necessarily interact.
Life often works that way, too, in the “grid” of goodness and kindness. Rambam taught that one of the highest forms of benevolence is achieved when the giver and recipient do not know each other. When performed anonymously, only the kindness exists, as just that: pure kindness.
Electricity still requires close contact for the current to flow, but once that connection does exist, anything is possible. A dead vehicle roaring back to life with just a small jumpstart or power restored after a blackout reminds us to truly appreciate important connections when we lose them and forces us to learn that without them, little is possible.
No one foresaw that the world would be plunged into the current coronavirus pandemic, and social distancing requirements have sharply reduced the normal, everyday interactions that are so important in Jewish life. One social commentator recently wondered about the toll from the isolation, anxiety and depression, especially among the elderly, compared with the toll from the actual coronavirus. The underlying numbers are serious.
Loneliness is a very un-Jewish state. Wherever a Jew is, God is with him or her, yet communal engagement and support are crucial. Great effort is exerted throughout Jewish practice and ritual to ensure that people are drawn together, especially at times when they might be more vulnerable. If loneliness can erode life emotionally or even physically, separation surely can do so spiritually.
Hearing the clarion call of the shofar in person while assembled with others — as Jews have for millennia — is a crucial aspect of our tradition. Halachah requires that one hear the actual sound of the shofar, not merely an echo of it, so it may pierce the crust of our soul purely and directly, permeating it without even the minutest disruption. It is this direct connection that makes the experience real. Once that direct connection is lost, many may not return to it quickly or may not seek it out again in its truest form.
The late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, set an example about Jewish life and technology. While warning about the spiritual dangers of television and cable, for example, he nevertheless found an appropriate way to use it to share spiritual messages with the masses on an ongoing basis. This appreciation for technology (on weekdays) and its importance within contemporary Jewish life is real.
I deeply appreciate and vigorously engage in appropriate use of technology for the purpose of connecting people to Jewish life.
But even as the Rebbe encouraged the use of media for sacred purposes, he would never allow any broadcast or recording on Shabbat or festivals, or at any time clearly not permitted according to halachah.
The incredible phenomena of Zoom and similar applications have enabled millions, perhaps billions, to better weather the current pandemic without total isolation and to easily connect and remain involved on many levels. However, the increasing use of virtual means to conduct religious services ought to be cause for concern. It is a short-term solution that is so convenient, it may well present a longer-term challenge to Jewish communal life.
I especially am anxious about the upcoming Jewish New Year and holidays, when the majority of Jews will not be able to attend real services. The call of the shofar, for example, is a powerful kickstart to the months ahead. Instead of settling for a virtual experience, we should pursue safe ways to enable people to attend a service, or at least an actual shofar blowing, in person.
Accommodation, when halachically permissible, is important. Compromise is trickier, because it easily can become the new standard, creating a cycle of additional compromises.
The muscles of Jewish tradition that have formed the core of our resilient community life for ages must not be allowed to atrophy. Many large annual events occurred online this season, enabling critical networking to continue, even if in a modified or truncated state. A good number of organizations reported vastly expanded participation this year at virtual conventions, dinners, celebrations and the like. At the same time, no one can deny the discernible loss in quality of experience at these virtual events, creative though they may be.
To truly appreciate the spiritual power of prayer and practice in Jewish life, like so many other special experiences, we ultimately need to be “in the room”; otherwise, the connection wanes and may be lost, and what we might resume afterward — if the rules and standards have changed in the interim — would be something very different. After we have picked up new habits, going back to a standard that is less convenient may be quite difficult, if not impossible.
So, let us deal carefully with the dilemma we now face. We must be compassionate and exert ourselves to reach out to as many Jews as we can, while remaining aware of the consequences of relaxing the standards to a point from which we may never return.
People spend large sums of money to buy the best tickets to performances, dinners, or sporting events — or travel great distances to be somewhere for important milestones and occasions — even when the same event can be viewed online with less expense and bother. That’s because being “in the room” creates a powerful third dimension that provides a sense of depth and reality. It also allows one to experience the mood and respond to what is occurring. That is where our focus should be for Rosh Hashanah, even if it requires quicker, multiple services and expanded resources to keep everyone safe. We need to ensure not only physical but spiritual safety, now and for the longer term.
May the Almighty grant us the opportunity to return to our full lives as we knew them, with the sound of the great shofar heard by us all — not virtually, but directly, and very soon.
Rabbi Levi Shemtov is the executive vice president of American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad) in Washington, D.C. His upcoming book, “Capital Sparks,” will be released in early 2021.