Fair warning: I’m going to start out with a joke that I predict over 95% of you won’t get. But it’s so illustrative of how I often view the Conservative Movement that I just can’t resist.
A priest, minister, and a rabbi (so far so good) are sitting together, discussing the fact that religion is becoming distant and less accessible to a greater segment of the public than ever before. So they all decide that each of them, on behalf of their religions, must make certain compromises in order to appeal to more people.
The priest begins. “We’re willing to do away with the Immaculate Conception.”
The minister hears this and offers, “We’re willing to do away with the Trinity.”
The rabbi thinks for a moment and then says, “We’ll give up the second Yekum Purkan.”
(I won’t kill the humor further by trying to explain it. Please trust me–this is a very funny joke.)
That rabbi is where the Conservative Movement finds itself now. After reading the latest responsum graciously providing limited guidelines and allowances for synagogues to livestream their services on Shabbat and gather for minyans via Zoom, all I wanted to do was say, “Oh thank you. Thank you so much for giving us all the go ahead for what most of us have already been doing.”
The Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards has decided, again, how to properly interpret and parse the verse in Exodus which states “You shall kindle no fire in your dwellings on the Sabbath Day.” I’m picturing a board of directors sitting in an abandoned headquarters of Blockbuster Video who figure they can revive customer loyalty by removing the requirement to rewind all tapes before returning them.
When Jewish law becomes a hindrance, an obstacle, an irrelevance, something that exacerbates our isolation and separation from each other–it’s time to embrace (not just reluctantly allow) change. Instead, I think more time and attention should be spent looking at the verse in Leviticus which says, “Don’t put a stumbling block before the blind.” Stuck at home, unable to see or hear our fellow Jews at services or in the temple building, we are all blind and deaf.
It’s been a couple months. I think we have a fair idea of how a lot of this is working out. If a Conservative synagogue utilizes technology on Shabbat in order to maintain a connection with its congregation, is this a positive step or another chip in the wall of Halacha, ultimately leading to the slippery slope of secularism?
Here’s what I’ve seen (and anecdotally corroborated by many of my colleagues):
• A considerably higher attendance at all services over what we would expect in person.
• Younger people, often adult children of congregants who may or may not still live in the area, now regularly tune in to the livestream.
• Former members who now live elsewhere in the country but feel a love for their long time temple can join in services once again.
• Unaffiliated worshippers come across the livestream on their Facebook feeds and pop in.
• Non-Jewish Facebook friends do the same–having always been curious about what a Jewish worship service looks like and never quite understanding what I do for a living.
• Congregants of synagogues that have made the decision not to use any of this technology regularly tune into our feed, because they cannot attend their own synagogues.
There’s been a lot of hand wringing among the various circles of Jewish life: What implications will this have for temple membership? If people can visit any livestream they want, anywhere in the country, what motivation will there be to maintain membership with (i.e. pay dues to) their local synagogue? My perspective couldn’t be more different. I feel that congregants that have been given the option of worshipping with their congregation each week have significantly strengthened their connection and commitment.
Rather than being an emergency response to an isolated crisis, our embrace of technology, livestreaming, and all virtual services should continue. It’s very good for the Jews.