Into the Fire? Or into the Future?

By Rabbi Daniel G. Zemel and David E. Behrman

A story:

A congregation feels compelled by “Pandemic Shabbat” to hold its bnai mitzvah services via video conference, choosing not to postpone them until the fall in an attempt to recapture normal times. And of course no party. Service degraded? Celebration ruined? Not at all.

Each week since mid-March a Torah scroll has been hand carried to the home of a Temple Micah family, in preparation for the celebration of a bar or bat mitzvah. With the rabbi on one screen, the bnai mitzvah on another, and various families and friends on others, an ancient ritual is reinvented in thoroughly modern digital clothing.

The act of holding these services online has been deeply religious, and deeply Jewish. It has been far beyond what anyone expected to be possible, far from the mere substitute many expected. The worship is moving and uplifting, somehow the more so because it takes place from the intimacy of a residence and within the austere and unadorned frame of a computer screen. We can see up close as students proudly open the scroll and chant their parasha from their living rooms.

If bar and bat mitzvah, in our American Jewish context, still represents the beginning of a new phase of life and a step towards adulthood, facing the difficulties and disappointments imposed by the reality we are in, while certainly not desired, is honest and real. To have postponed these bar and bat mitzvah services for the sake of preserving a particular form of celebration we now realize would have been trying to hold back the forces of nature. We would, in some profound sense, have been seeking to deny the impact of that which we are all experiencing.

A second story:

A 65th birthday falls days after the coronavirus lockdown starts, a wedding anniversary mere weeks later. Celebrations ruined? Not so much.

A new ritual is developed. Dinner with the adult children who no longer live in the same city and who would ordinarily not be able to attend dinner. And “Z-tails” afterward with friends of quarter-century standing. No fancy restaurant food, and no regret afterward about excessive caloric intake. Just the warm feeling of family and friends sharing a meaningful day, and the feeling that it would be nice to do it again.

And a last story:

An extended family’s Passover seder tradition, going back over a century, is threatened by the pandemic. Each year approximately 60 people have gathered in Boston to celebrate, with an extended seder and good-and-welfare sharing of family news, but that’s impossible this year, so they reluctantly go online. Passover hollowed out? Not at all.

To be sure, the food for most participants is a poor imitation of the family classic matzah balls and brisket. The seder itself is a bit ragtag and might horrify a purist; it lasts only a short time, perhaps 15-20 minutes. But, but, BUT: instead of the usual 60-70 people the virtual seder attracts over 100 family members. And they spend over two hours on good and welfare, catching up on what has gone on for each family over the past year. Truer words were never spoken: “it was chaos … and it was wonderful.”

* * *

Our Jewish rituals and traditions have evolved continuously over the centuries. Until the 16th century there was no Kabbalat Shabbat. It is now the central part of Friday evening worship in most congregations. Simchat Torah used to be celebrated every three and a half years or so, depending on how long it took a community to read the Torah from beginning to end. The notion of bride and groom exchanging rings at the chuppah as equal partners in egalitarian marriage would have been unthinkable until very recently and we all know that bat mitzvah was first introduced in the first third of the twentieth century but did not become an expected rite of passage until the final twenty years of the last century.

And so now today, in the midst of a pandemic, we develop new rituals. We carry the Torah from home to home. We strip out the fluff and distraction of gifts and dance moves, and we emphasize the timeless and core importance of our tradition. We celebrate under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, just as our ancestors have done for generations. We teach resilience and adaptation, and the honesty of forthrightly facing our difficulties and disappointments.

And we can now include Grandma, who would have been unable to attend because of her health. Put a price on that.

Shiva is now observed online. Last year, even three months ago, such a thing would have elicited gasps of disbelief, perhaps even indignation. Today, we must participate from a distance, so online it is. And there’s a benefit – you and I can attend a shiva service in a city far away and perform the mitzvah of presence in a different form.

This evolution of shiva is nothing new. What started out as the daily minyan coming to the mourner’s home has in many communities become an opportunity for the mourner to not only say kaddish but to do much more. With our geographically dispersed families, we travel out of town for the funeral of our loved ones and return home for shiva in our local community. And so today, shiva is so much more than the fulfillment of the mitzvah of recitation of kaddish – eulogies may be re-presented for the ones back home, the mourner and extended family might share memories of the loved one who has died. Here too the ritual has evolved and expanded.

And the evolution of shiva is certainly not complete. Soon, we predict, it will be unthinkable not to include a digital presence – we will want to include those who cannot travel. It will be a matter of inclusion. So we will develop a hybrid of physical and digital which will allow the most participation, the most presence, for all those who which to attend. The word “attend” will change – it will come to mean be present, physically, or emotionally and spiritually.

Our religious schools are adapting too. Over the past month or so we have heard extraordinarily things from congregations and educators. Schools that plan to extend their school year to provide more connectivity to kids and families; kids and families asking for more. Educators adding content to their programs, recognizing that engagement is most meaningful, and stickiest, when it goes hand-in-glove with meaningful learning from our tradition. And rabbis and educators who recognize the challenges we will face with physical gathering and are looking for ways to provide learning to whole families, and to actively engage parents in their children’s educational program.

No one would have wished for this crisis. And yet we are being offered a gift – the gift of considering what is important to us. As with bat mitzvah celebration described above, we are forced to strip away layers of fluff and distraction that over the years we have painted onto our core traditions in an effort to entertain our kids, to secularize and fit in, to provide the spoonful of sugar that helps the Judaic medicine go down. And even to impress our neighbors. But it turns out that with the fluff stripped away, we see more clearly that much of the good of our tradition comes from its core teachings and its relationships, not from the physical trappings and events that seemed so essential just a few months ago. Reading and interpreting Torah, connecting to our ancient past, and bringing that past alive to our now far-flung and virtual community really is the essence of what we do and what we strive to teach.

The Jewish way has always changed before our very eyes with hardly a notice. How many of us participate in the once-common ritual of kapparah – swinging a live chicken over our heads as a way of atoning for sin on the eve of Yom Kippur? How many congregations have changed their liturgy by making the healing prayer a central part of the worship experience, allowing prayer to be the vehicle for releasing emotion pent up within? Who even thinks of ever-new liturgical music as even a change? How many of us take musical instruments for granted? The more we listen to the times, the more our ritual life changes.

Yes, these are singular times – none of us has lived through such an earth-changing event. But there have been singular times before and Judaism has evolved along with the world around it and has adapted to and been strengthened by its new circumstances.

The pandemic has put our world on fast-forward – our secular world and our Jewish world with it. We will witness – in fact are witnessing – perhaps 5-10 years of change within a period of one or two. There will be a million experiments, many will succeed, at least a few will fail. We will someday be able to experience physical presence again, yet the ability of digital technology and small group experiences to enrich our Jewish lives will not be forgotten, and we will build what works into our evolving tradition.

Contemporary computer technology, in the meantime, allows for a new and different kind of togetherness and intimacy. We are all in the family home. Judaism is alive there. The Torah is there too – figuratively and sometimes literally. Families will never forget the experience of having homes become sanctuaries filled with prayer. It is beautiful. It is sacred.

In this process of experimenting, we will ask several questions: What is important about the time we spend in our Jewish community? How important is our physical space? How important is physical presence? Are there other kinds of presence that allow us to include people who would otherwise be excluded? What do we want to remember from our Jewish lives? Which of the things we do, and the ways we spend our time, are worth of our tradition? What do we want to do more of, and what do we want to strip away and discard?

And when we look back and write or tell our personal histories, we will remember how lived through these times and redefined what connects our families, our community, and our world. We will remember it as a uniquely special metamorphosis held against the backdrop of something dangerous, tragic and historic. Our personal stories will be linked forever to the epic and transformational.

All of us wish, at some level, for the old “Normal” to return. And some will wait – holding out as long as possible for that to happen. But it’s unlikely; there is a New Normal coming. And this New Normal isn’t all bad – just ask the birthday boy who celebrated his 65th with his children, or Grandma who got to attend her granddaughter’s bat mitzvah in the same way that everyone else attended, and everyone at the seder who is today more richly connected to every member of their family.

Danny Zemel is Rabbi of Temple Micah in Washington, D.C. David Behrman is President of Behrman House Publishers.