Putting the Genie Back

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.

5 comments on “Putting the Genie Back

  1. Michael R Simon

    It is shocking to read “Jewish worshipers absolutely should open up their computers or smartphones without reservation on Shabbat and festivals to join in prayer with a community.” I’m not the most observant, but I do enjoy our traditions and I try to observe the sabbath away from my computers and screens (a 1-day vacation every week from modern electronica).
    You are totally on-point: in order to survive, we must adapt and entertain indulgences when we need to. Our strength is our community. Our survival as a people is our community. I will zoom in and use Facebook to join our community in traditional prayer because that is what we must do in order to survive.

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  2. Sheldon Levin

    You should read what Eliot Dorph wrote which does not allow streaming. I don’t disagree with you but there are other opinions. My rabbi’s biggest concern is the precedence. Will people insist on attending from their living room when this is over. Will families want to stream so relatives can participate? I would prefer my rabbi have been willing to stream now but at least he let me do a workshop on virtual seders and we do some things prior to Shabbat. This Thursday we are Zoom recording the Saturday bat mitzvah which they will stream on Shabbat. Change is not easy for everyone.

    On Mon, Apr 27, 2020, 12:45 PM Cantor Matt Axelrod wrote:

    > Cantor Matt Axelrod posted: ” About a decade ago (actually 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 ” >

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  3. Leslie Cohen Schwartz

    I imagine that it might be frustrating to you and the rabbi not to have a congregation in front of you. However, for us, living in Texas, this would be the only way we could join in. We are grateful to feel like we are a part of the congregation and pray along with you.
    Since we belong to a very small congregation that only has Friday night services once a month normally, we are glad that CBI has chosen to follow this path. I don’t understand how not holding services virtually would encourage Conservative Jew to come back once this is over.

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    • Cantor Matt Axelrod

      Hi Leslie–I see you tune in each time and it makes me so happy that you’re able to be with us in a way that has never been possible. This is one of the unintended benefits of our new and strange situation–it’s good for us as a Jewish community and as a people.

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  4. Pingback: But is it Good for the Jews? – Cantor Matt Axelrod

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