About a decade ago (no, wait, it was about six or seven weeks) when all this started, I remember reading one little tidbit in the news. At that point, all of our information was primarily centered around hand washing and hand sanitizing. The news item had to do about air travel (which actually was still a thing back then) and the latest TSA policy that would now allow passengers to pass through security with containers of hand sanitizer that were greater than the usually restricted three ounces.
Initial reactions were of course positive and thankful, reflecting everyone’s heightened concerns about avoiding illness. Soon thereafter, though, people came up with what I think was a natural and probing statement:
It’s almost like the original restriction didn’t serve much purpose in the first place.
This is where we now find ourselves in Jewish congregational life. Especially within the Conservative Movement, which has always tenuously struggled to straddle the line between traditional halacha and meeting the needs of most of their members who simply don’t live according to that system–we’ve seen a complete blurring of the boundaries which supposedly set us apart from the other denominations. Jewish historians and sociologists will be studying this period of time for decades to come.
The Conservative Movement has been called on lately to make rulings on restrictions which had rarely been called into question–and in a lot of cases they have granted indulgences allowing congregants the permission to do what they started doing anyway. But lest there be any doubt of where I stand, Jewish worshippers absolutely should open up their computers or smartphones without reservation on Shabbat and festivals to join in prayer with a community. They should feel free to type comments greeting each person that enters the virtual room and wishing everyone Shabbat Shalom. It baffles me that there are a number of Conservative synagogues that have made the decision not to hold virtual services like that because they still deem it a violation of Shabbat restrictions. Honestly, I don’t understand this we-have-to-destroy-the congregation-in-order-save-it school of thought. How is this any different from the Conservative Movement specifically making it permissible to drive to shul on Shabbat in order to attend services? I can’t comprehend why livestreaming during a pandemic is more problematic than filling up a parking lot the rest of the year.
The average pre-quarantine shul goer now has two choices: give up any participation in services for the foreseeable future, or simply log onto another synagogue’s feed. So exactly what precious halachic tradition is being preserved?
Just as with the TSA rule that was no longer a rule, I wonder if the collective Jewish community will come to the same conclusion– these restrictions (which most people don’t follow but pay good money to institutions and clergy that are expected to)–what purpose do a lot of them even serve? To what extent do many of these rules–in the sacrosanct name of tradition–simply erect needless barriers and hurdles to participation? How many scholars do we really need to argue about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin while analyzing whether webcasting a service constitutes making a record of something on Shabbat, or how that might encourage people to stay home instead of attending shul in person (and God forbid, creating an opportunity for congregants to open up their computers on Saturday morning)?
Here’s the biggest question: What happens when our emergency is over? Do we get follow-up guidance informing us that as of a certain date, our newfound permission to attend a virtual minyan and say Kaddish with ten other Zoom boxes is hereby revoked?
It’s almost like the original rules didn’t serve much purpose in the first place.