Ask the Rabbi

Rabbi Carla Freedman
Ask the Rabbi

June/July 2020 QUESTION:

How is the coronavirus changing Jewish religious practices?

June/July 2020 ANSWER:

In various ways.

The first big challenge was wrapping our heads around doing services via the internet. Jewish practice has mandated that a “valid” service has to involve a quorum of 10 adults (and in traditional circles, of course, 10 men), present in the same room at the same time. In the Reform movement, where we are accustomed to meeting the challenges of our times, this was not a crisis, but certainly in the orthodox and Conservative worlds, this has been highly problematic. In Israel, where assembly was totally prohibited by civil law during the virus outbreak, some men were arrested for gathering in their synagogue for services. In the end, Orthodox authorities told their adherents to pray at home rather than risk their health (and civil fines or other punishment) by going to their synagogues.

The problem on Shabbat was compounded in Orthodox and Conservative communities by the fact that the turning on and off of electricity is prohibited on Shabbat. Orthodox congregations seem to have given up on any kind of accommodation to the situation, while some Conservative communities have settled for turning on the required electricity before Shabbat begins, to “Zoom” a Bar or Bat Mitzvah service. They allowed 10 people into their sanctuaries (thus fulfilling the requirements for a minyan), scattered about the room.

Then the question was: how to conduct a Passover seder when we are all confined to our own homes, when travel is prohibited, and when we live in different time zones? Many families and certainly many synagogues adapted to the situation by using technology to bring families and congregants together. It was by no means the familiar experience, but one that will be remembered forever in family and synagogue lore as a reasonable substitute, under the circumstances. One group of Moroccan Orthodox rabbis issued permission for Orthodox Jews to use computers as the rest of us were doing on seder eve, but they backed down when that was met with great opposition by other Orthodox rabbis.

Another problematic area has been funerals. With states and other authorities imposing strict rules against assembly, we have all been forced to do things we find very uncomfortable. In Florida, we have been permitted to have no more than 10 people at a funeral, whether indoors or graveside; in California, only 2 people are permitted. All must wear masks. Military funerals have been limited to 10 people, in no more than 2 vehicles, and no one has been allowed out of the vehicles; they have not permitted shoveling dirt onto the coffin.

Because of the strict rules about handling corpses, the traditional Jewish preparation of a body for burial has been suspended. All Jewish movements have complied, reluctantly, with this because of the traditional overriding principle that “the law of the land is the law.”

Alas, because of the “shelter-at-home” rules, it has been impossible to have shiva visits as well. I think this has been particularly difficult to accept, because it feels like abandoning our friends and family just when they most need us. But as long as the “shelter at home” rules apply, we have no choice. At Beth Israel, we have promised that, when we can return to our building, we will hold memorial services for Nelson Grimm, David Brown, and Ram Meyuhas, all of whom died during the prohibition on assembly. But we will never be able to compensate for our absence during the week of shiva. The idea of making shiva calls via “Zoom” just seems inadequate.

But we at Beth Israel are not facing the problems that most congregations have been wrestling with: what to do about Bar or Bat Mitzvah services that cannot be held in the synagogue? After all, the youngster has learned a Torah reading that is specific to the date. Some congregations have simply rescheduled these events, but it is tricky, because we don’t know when we will be able to assemble again. Some have done “Zoom” Bnai Mitzvah, some have done outdoor Bnai Mitzvah, and some have done a service at the family’s home.

The same difficulties (minus the Hebrew preparation) apply to weddings, this being prime time for such occasions. Some have opted for “immediate family only”, others have used technology to include broader family and friends, and some have simply postponed…perhaps for as much as a year…their big day.

The bottom line is that we are adapting in ways that may have far-reaching consequences. The critical question for us now is how to enable Judaism to survive these challenges; further down the road, we will have to grapple with long-term implications. And maybe this experience will force us to do some anticipatory thinking, so that, next time, we have some strategies in place for making decisions. We can be certain that there will be a next time; we just can’t begin to imagine what it will look like.


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