Finding More than Halakhic Solutions

By Rabbi Dov Linzer

Has there been anything missing from the Orthodox rabbinate’s response to the coronavirus?

The age of coronavirus has led to a flurry of innovation in Jewish communities, perhaps nowhere near as much as in the Orthodox community, a community that is committed to a halakhic process that even in its most creative moments doesn’t tend to veer that far from the established mean. It was not, at the outset, obvious that Orthodox rabbis would be able to find appropriate practical and halakhic solutions to the new problems that individuals and communities were facing: how to go to the mikveh, how to say kaddish without a minyan physically present, how to give aliyot in shul, and on and on.

And yet, rise to the occasion they did. Rabbi Herschel Schechter from Yeshiva University, to take one example, published almost weekly a list of halakhic answers to questions being asked by rabbis and lay people, together with the scholarship to back them up. Rabbis found halakhic solutions to almost every case, and while there was not – by and large – much new ground broken, there was a profound and refreshing amount of creativity in identifying the often unused and forgotten halakhic rulings, and in finding ways to apply them to the cases at hand.

This process has only continued as we approached, and now are in the midst of, the High Holiday season. To allow for short services, rabbis have identified all the parts of the service that can be eliminated, leaving us with a 2-hour service instead of one that usually extends 6 hours or more. Some institutions have even published new Machzorim, with all the (now-identified) optional parts eliminated or appropriately labeled. This has all been of huge service to the community.

It would seem, then, that nothing has been missing from the Orthodox response. But is that indeed the case? For while Orthodox Jews focus a great deal on halakha, there is more to the human and religious experience than just matters of law.

One area that has been addressed by many is that of mental health. The new realities have produced in many feelings of seclusion and loneliness, as well as deep depression and anxiety. It has been gratifying to see the Orthodox Union sponsor a number of panel discussions on exactly this issue, to help people best cope with these challenges. And many synagogues have sent out guidelines to provide support in this regard as well.

Something, however, is still lacking. For I would like to believe that the vast majority of Orthodox Jews are not just observant, but that they are actually religious. They want to connect to God, to the power and sanctity of these Days of Awe, that want to be elevated, to be prodded to reflect and to get in touch with their innermost thoughts. In my experience, the Orthodox community and its rabbinate have been slow to recognize and respond to this need, to actually help people connect to their religious feelings and longings.

Cutting out all the halakhically extraneous parts of the Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur service also means cutting out almost all the parts that people are moved and inspired by. Maybe some of these sections actually need to be left in. And then there is the population that won’t even be able to come to the synagogue. Strategies need to be identified that can help everyone emotionally and religiously during these days.

We at YCT have made a first stab at doing that with a Machzor Companion that we published in partnership with Maharat and the International Rabbinic Fellowship. This companion opens – shockingly! – with 6 pages of poems. Unlike the dense prayers and often dense Torah thoughts, these poems have a lot of white space, allowing a person to breathe and reflect, to find oneself in the space between the words. After the poems follows a series of prompts for writing or reflecting, and then – again, shockingly – blank pages, pages that can be used for spiritual writing, or that can open up a space for thought and reflection. And, finally, at the end of the short Torah thoughts on different parts of the service, there are prodding questions, to encourage a person to be an active participant in the day and its religious meaning. Thank God, there has been a great deal of deeply appreciative reactions to this Companion, which speaks volumes to the felt need there is out in the community for initiatives such as these.

Too often, Orthodox Jews refer to themselves as “religious.” Bracketing for a moment any implicit judgement that this contains about other denominations, the use of this term is really a misnomer. They mean to say that they are (halakhically) observant. But perhaps it is not a mistake after all. All of us – yes, even the Orthodox – are religious beings, and those needs need to be addressed by our leaders. I hope that we, the Orthodox rabbinate, can take up this challenge, and find initiatives and strategies to nurture and support people’s religious and emotional needs, not only during the Days of Awe in the age of the coronavirus, but throughout the year, wherever and whenever we may find ourselves.

Rabbi Dov Linzer is the President and Rosh HaYeshiva of YCT Rabbinical School. He has been a leading rabbinic voice in the Modern Orthodox community for over 20 years and serves as a religious guide to the yeshiva’s current rabbinical students and over 150 rabbis serving in the field.