From the Rabbi’s Desk APRIL, 2020
Rabbi Carla Freedman
FROM THE RABBI’S HOUSE SPECIAL ARTICLE April 2020
A few years ago, a congregant who was at home convalescing from surgery asked me if he could attend our Shabbat service via computer. This led to a discussion about related matters, and ultimately, we asked the Responsa Committee of the CCAR (a group of Reform rabbis who research Jewish law and traditions to address contemporary matters) whether ten people, from
their ten separate locations, could get together online and constitute a minyan, the required quorum for a complete Jewish service.
They had apparently just written their response to this same question, coming from someone else. The bottom line was…no. There are certain religious obligations for which the participants are required to be physically assembled, and the
establishment of a minyan is one such mitzvah.
At the time of the inquiry, none of us could imagine either the circumstances we are now living through or the technological abilities we can now deploy, and that was that.
It has become increasingly clear over the last several years that the traditions and even some of the laws of Jewish religious life were premised on a world reality that no longer exists. The idea, for example, of burial within 24 hours of death, presupposes that the entire family will live in the same community. The idea of walking to synagogue presumes that everyone lives within
walking distance of that synagogue. The idea that a group of ten adult (male) Jews could be assembled at all times presupposed that services would be held within a Jewish community, not in a largely non-Jewish world.
And Jewish law never imagined that to prevent the spread of a deadly disease, all assembly would be forbidden.
So here we are, in a new reality, trying to be true to our heritage and compliant with the secular authorities who are responsible for public safety.
The first thing we must consider is that our ancestors gave us the overriding principle of
preservation of health. We are permitted, by Jewish law, to violate any and all Jewish laws to preserve and protect life, except those forbidding murder, idolatry, or incest. So, by avoiding group get-togethers, as the government is ordering us to
do, we are in compliance with Jewish law.
To follow the Responsa Committee’s ruling to permit a complete service however, we’d need to have a minyan of ten* Jewish adults (we are Reform, so, of course, women count toward th minyan) present in the room from where the service is being broadcast.
That is highly problematic, in this moment of the coronavirus. So we are experimenting with current technology and how much of a service we can offer. The critical thing is that the recitation of Kaddish…mourner’s Kaddish, reader’s Kaddish…
all forms of Kaddish…requires a minyan.
I suspect that many of you think this whole subject is irrelevant to contemporary Reform Jewish life. However, it simply highlights how distant we are from the world presumed by Jewish law. And as technology continues to enable things that our
ancestors could never have imagined, that distance will increase. Our challenge is to find meaning in Jewish practices, and then to find ways of achieving the meaning without strict adherence to the laws that structure them.
So I will offer a Shabbat get-together online until we can safely return to our building. Will it be a service like the ones we do in the temple? Not really. And this will deprive some people of the opportunity to say kaddish for deceased loved ones. Perhaps when we can assemble, we can add to each weekly kaddish list some of the names we are missing now. Maybe we’ll ask you to stand for kaddish and say aloud the names you were deprived of honoring. Maybe you have a creative suggestion to add to these.
The critical thing, during the time we are not permitted to assemble, will be the sense of community we get from “attending” services online or by phone; the welcoming of Shabbat into our homes, and the opportunity for some learning and thinking will keep us connected to our traditions and our sacred literature.
We will also be offering some classes via the internet, and we will offer a “virtual seder” on the first night of Pesakh. Watch online for info and directions to participate in these.
And we are open to other ideas and suggestions.
Meanwhile, keep safe…and keep washing those hands!!
*or nine Jewish adults and one Torah scroll.
From the Rabbi’s Desk APRIL, 2020
In various classes I have taught here over the last nearly seven years, we have talked about the question of the historicity of the Bible. The matter comes down to whether we take the Bible to be literally true.
Jewish tradition holds that every word of Torah is divinely revealed; it is “true” both in the factual sense and in the spiritual sense. For more than 200 years now, some people…Jews included…have been open to the idea that, Jewish tradition notwithstanding, the Torah is a human product, composed of materials from several sources, skillfully woven together by a later editor. Full disclosure: I am one of those Jews who accept this idea.
And I have said that the people who wrote the Hebrew Bible, including the Torah, had no idea they were composing “the Bible”…a text taken by some to be the exact and inerrant word of God.
This matter comes to the fore every year as we prepare to observe Pesakh, the entire source for which is, of course, the Hebrew Bible. Was there an actual man named Moses? Did the Egyptians enslave and oppress the Israelites? Did God rescue them, inflicting 10 plagues upon the Egyptians? Did God split the Sea of Reeds, allowing the Israelites to escape their enemies and proceed to Mt. Sinai?
The problem then becomes, how do we celebrate Pesakh, if we take the position that the Biblical narrative is not historically founded. And for us as Jews, the problem is actually much larger than that. The story of the exodus from Egypt is referenced in our daily liturgy (Mi Khamokha is an excerpt from the triumphal Song at the Sea, celebrating the exodus and the defeat of the pursuing Egyptians), in our Shabbat evening kiddush (“zekher l’yitziat mitzrayim”…a remembrance of the exodus from Egypt), and many other liturgical moments.
For non-Jews, the problem matters because many liberation movements have taken the Biblical story of the exodus from Egypt as their own paradigm. They see in the exodus story the basis of hope for a happy resolution of their own situation, and they see in their own leader a new Moses.
I have personally made peace with the disparity between what I believe and what I celebrate at Pesakh. I appreciate the artistry of the Biblical account, and the inspiration it provided for our people over the millennia of exile, persecution and oppression which have been our people’s lot. How many generations of Jews have thought: if God could redeem our ancestors from slavery, then God could rescue us (from the Inquisition, from the ghetto, from the Nazis)? In those situations, hope was all our people had, and it enabled them to endure extraordinary suffering.
So I come to the seder table happy to celebrate this story of rescue from dire straits, this story of God’s intervention in human affairs, this story of Jewish survival, even if the events themselves did not happen as the Torah tells it. What matters is how we use this story to develop our values and to form our basic attitude to life, which, the exodus story tells us, should be one of hope and joy.