Coronavirus Thoughts (2)

On Coronaheterim and the Future of Jewish Life

I ended my previous post by mentioning that the quiet Shabbat and Yom Tov days during the lockdown have provided me with an unusual opportunity to reflect on the current situation and its impact on our Jewish lives.

One thought has dominated those quiet moments – a sense of awesome, almost overwhelming responsibility.  Of course, I must play my role in seeing my family, my community and the organisations I advise through the crisis in good form.  But what is playing on my mind is something bigger – my responsibility to protect and preserve Judaism itself.

The pandemic has produced religious dilemmas of a degree of import that I had not previously encountered.  Each requires the halachic decisor to navigate the tension between normative practice, pressing immediate need and the ramifications – short and longer-term of each possible ruling.  Some – such as at what stage to close Shuls, required the Office of the Chief Rabbi, the United Synagogue and the London Bet Din to follow medical and government advice.  Others – such as whether to conduct burials on second-day Yom Tov and which regular foodstuffs are permitted in extremis on Pesach – were taken centrally.  In the former, the London Bet Din allowed something that is technically permitted yet never usually practised; in the latter, I believe they demonstrated great sensitivity to those who simply couldn’t access Pesach-supervised foods due to isolation or location, while remaining faithful to the requirements of halachah in a situation where (unlike in historic cases of famine or conflict), there was no shortage of staples.

Yet some decisions have been left more to local discretion.  I believe that the way in which we handle them will impact on the future viability of Judaism in our communities.  This is best explained through two examples – minyan / kaddish and the ‘Zoom Seder’.  Both have been subject to detailed scrutiny in the Jewish press and on social media.

One of the consequences of necessary social distancing has been the inability to gather for regular minyanim and the impossibility of forming ad hoc minyanim at shiva houses.  This has led to the painful consequence that those recently bereaved or marking a yahrzeit cannot say kaddish for their loved one.  This is because kaddish falls into the category of ‘devarim shebikedushah’ – holy content that may only be included in our prayers in the presence of a minyan.  Many communities, including mine, have been hosting virtual weekday prayer service which provide an opportunity to ‘see’ each other, pray together and intercede on behalf of those who are ill.  Some are also including Torah study and memorial prayers for the deceased, reflections on his or her life and words of comfort to the bereaved.

Yet for many, the omission of kaddish remains vexatious and disappointing.  As such, some individuals and rabbis are relying on an eccentric, outlying view (almost certainly taken out of context) that has emerged from Israel which permits reciting kaddish even when the prayer group (I am reluctant to say ‘minyan’ here) is convened entirely by virtual means.  Despite its marginal nature (the ruling is rejected by virtually every other halachic decisor of repute in the world), its attraction is obvious.  Yet just as obvious is the threat to the very fabric of public prayer that adopting a ruling of this sort poses.  And while I admire the ingenuity of its originator (while rejecting its acceptability out of hand), I am deeply suspicious of how a ruling of this sort could have been issued, something I have attempted – unsuccessfully – to clarify directly.

The imperative to socially isolate radically changed the way most of us celebrated Pesach this year, with thousands of older and vulnerable people unable to enjoy seder with their families.  We all know people for whom Pesach – usually a joyful gathering to which they look forward for months – was transformed into a week they were absolutely dreading, with many facing it alone for the first time in their lives.  Again, communities did their best to provide not just shopping and other pre-Yom Tov support, but also familiar and enjoyable online content before Pesach and during Chol HaMoed.  Yet while certainly appreciated, this is unlikely to have mitigated the reality of a long Yom Tov in isolation and seder alone.

A couple of weeks before Pesach, a group of relatively unknown Israeli Sephardic rabbis issued guidelines for what has been become known as the ‘Zoom Seder’.  This allowed people to commence a virtual meeting prior to Yom Tov, leaving a device running into the festival, thereby enabling family members in different homes to ‘share’ their seder.  Apart from the technical difficulties of following even these guidelines, this ruling was also rejected by practically every halachic expert of note, some in the strongest terms.  And the ruling itself turned out to be a fiasco, as many of the signatories subsequently withdrew their support, some even claiming that their names had been appended without permission.[1]  For understandable reasons, some seized on this idea as a solution to their seder dilemma.  I am truly fortunate – while our sedarim were much smaller than usual – they were lively and beautiful family occasions.  I can hardly imagine the distress of those facing Yom Tov alone and I appreciate why those most affected by the lockdown and otherwise facing days of isolation – would choose to adopt this solution without consulting their usual rabbinic advisors.  Yet some rabbis – perhaps without thoroughly investigating the background to the ‘Zoom Seder’ – even promoted it to their communities.  Again, I can only point out the glaringly obvious – the potential long-term damage to Shabbat and Yom Tov observance caused by the dissemination of such blanket rulings.[2]

Virtual kaddish and the ‘Zoom Seder’ touch on two of the pillars of Jewish life – public prayer and scrupulous observance of Shabbat and Yom Tov.  They are the very lifeblood of Jewish communal life and our inability to gather in prayer as usual and the disruption to our usual Shabbat and Yom Tov practices are deeply painful.  They have held communities together from time immemorial and they will – and must – outlive the unprecedented challenges of the present crisis.  As Ahad Ha’Am famously said, ‘more than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews’, an aphorism that might also be applied to public prayer.  I passionately belief that interfering with the core principles on which these constructs rest risks disastrous long-term effects, far worse than the very real – yet temporary – distress the current lockdown causes to those who cannot gather to pray or celebrate family-oriented festivals in the usual way.  We must be exquisitely sensitive, creative and bold to mitigate their anguish, but within carefully defined parameters, not with irresponsible, swinging changes to the underlying fabric of Judaism.  Shabbat, Yom Tov and public prayer – mainstays of our communal and private Jewish lives – are the heritage of every Jew and of the Jewish people.  They are entrusted to us by the collective history of the Jewish people and the tears and sacrifice of our forebears with the expectation that we will pass them on intact to future generations.  We are the guardians of a system that is not ours to fundamentally modify.  The extraordinary technology that enables virtual prayer gatherings and internet sedarim must not supplant core areas of Jewish practice, remaining its servant, never its master.

And as leaders we need to be realistic – with even the best intentions, members of the public will understandably draw general conclusions about the long-term permissibility of certain practices, however much we explain that they were only intended for one-off emergency situations.  We cannot easily undo the ‘Zoom Seder’, nor the virtual kaddish said without a minyan, once the genie is out of the bottle.

Misuse of the wise leniencies of this year’s ‘in extremis’ Pesach list may lead to someone purchasing unsupervised apple rings for Pesach next year – this is regrettable and should certainly be corrected, yet it is unlikely to have broader ramifications.  But misuse of virtual minyan and ‘Zoom Seder’ leniencies threatens the very foundations of Jewish life.  These rulings – to the extent that they can be called that – are popular, understandable and address genuine needs, yet at a great – I believe too great a – cost.  As Rabbi Shimon says ‘Who is wise? One who perceives the outcome of one’s actions’.[3]


[1] This shambles is described masterfully here by my friend Rabbi Pini Dunner of Beverley Hills.

[2] Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon – a great contemporary Israeli halachic expert – offered a beautiful alternative, what he called ‘a family Zoom pre-Seder meeting before sunset’ (see here for details).  This encouraged families to gather by Zoom an hour or two before Yom Tov to sing favourite Seder songs, discuss issues about liberty, share favourite moments from the evening and invite individual contributions.  Rabbi Rimon felt that this could offer what he called ‘an exciting reunion that will be a meaningful beginning to the Seder night’, potentially allowing dozens of family members to participate in an inspirational pre-Seder gathering.

[3] Avot 2:9.

Coronavirus Thoughts (1)

A Changed World

I was in New York on a short business trip a few days before Purim.  Early one morning, I received an unexpected call from my Shul chair to say that a group of scientists and medics in our community had advised that we cancel all forthcoming social events including Shabbat kiddushim and Purim parties.  We were slightly ahead of the curve, although in common with other communities across the globe, by a few days after Purim, we had held our final minyan. That was just five weeks ago, but it might as well have been five years ago.

Since then, the Coronavirus pandemic has changed every aspect of communal life, creating new norms none of could have imagined a short while ago.  It has also had an extraordinary impact on the life, role and expectations of rabbinic leaders, something compounded by the suddenness of the changes and the proximity of the lockdown to Pesach, even in an ordinary year the busiest season for most rabbis.

Sadly, the impact of the crisis has hit many families and communities in the harshest of ways, with a marked increase in the number of bereavements and those who are seriously ill.  To make matters worse, social-distancing requirements mean that funerals may only be attended by a handful of people, shiva gatherings are forbidden and it is not permitted to visit the sick.  These rules add multiple layers of distress and anxiety to what are already life’s most painful experiences.  My prayers are with all those affected and their loved ones at this exceedingly difficult time.  And my thoughts are with those colleagues for whom this period has been unusually stressful.  They have been called upon to conduct numerous funerals in short order, while simultaneously supporting multiple bereaved families.  They have all risen to the challenge admirably.  I don’t underestimate the emotional and physical toll on them and their families.

As with all crises, this one has sorted the heroes from the zeroes.  Across the community, religious and lay leaders have set aside their personal anxieties, stepping forward to take bold, thoughtful decisions, creating a sense of engagement, care and spirituality for their flocks.  I am awed at what many of my colleagues have achieved in a short time and I am filled with admiration at what my own lay-leadership has put in place to support our community, something that I know is replicated in many others.

I have spent much of the past few weeks supporting our rabbinic and lay teams as we reimagine our community online, devise new programming designed to reach the largest possible number and create enhanced welfare systems to support those isolated by the crisis.  It’s been one of the most intense periods I can recall, notwithstanding that I’ve barely left the house.  Yet it has also been a time of introspection, especially as Shabbat and Yom Tov have been so quiet and free from formal responsibilities.

Where these quiet moments have led me and their intersection with certain recent developments will be covered in my next post later this week.

Isaiah's Comfort and Today's Prophets: a Message of Hope

Sermon Notes 09/08/13 - VaEtchanan & Nachamu 5774

The palpable sense of relief that generally follows Tisha B’Av is absent this year.  I usually feel that having spent three weeks contemplating the destruction of the Temple and other horrors of Jewish history, I’ve met my obligation and can leave Tisha B’Av refreshed, ready for the summer holidays and with one eye already on Rosh HaShanah.  This year, however, given the recent conflict in Israel and the shocking increase in anti-Semitism in Europe, the air is heavy, laden with uncertainty and ambivalence – almost guilt – at having moved back to normal life post-Tisha B’Av.  It feels to me that the notoriously flimsy boundary between valid criticism and naked anti-Semitism is in danger of collapse.

This past week, the spectre of divestment from Israel again raised its head.  I suspect that for many it will be the anti-Israel instrument of choice for in the months ahead, in preference to the rather more demanding option of reasoned discussion.  Those it affects most are our students on campus, who often find themselves on the front line of anti-Israel hostility. Even if their convictions are strong, their Israel experience is characterised by the constant need to justify and defend.  The opportunity that I had as a student to create what Ambassador Daniel Taub once described to me as ‘my Israel’ narrative – the space that allowed me to consider what Israel meant to me, what I aspired for it to be and what my role might be in attaining that – is commonly denied our students, who are constantly on the back foot.

It is in that vein that we turn to today’s haftarah, the first of the so-called ‘seven of comfort’ read between Tisha B’Av and Rosh HaShanah, selected from the 40th chapter of Isaiah.  It starts with the famous line:

נחמו נחמו עמי יאמר אלקיכם

Comfort, comfort My people, says your God. (Isaiah 40:1)

To whom is God is addressing His words – who should comfort My people?  The Aramaic Targum offers the obvious answer – God is speaking through Isaiah to His prophets:

נבייא אתנביאו תנחומין על עמי

My prophets! Prophesy comfort to My people. (Targum Onkelos ad loc.)

This reading (also favoured by Rashi) does not address the repetition of the word נחמו – comfort, something that can only be understood properly with reference to the next verse:

 דברו על לב ירושלם... כי מלאה צבאה כי נרצה עונה כי לקחה מיד ידוד כפלים בכל חטאתיה

Speak to the heart of Jerusalem... her time of estrangement has been fulfilled and her transgression has been forgiven, for she has been doubly punished by God for all her sins. (Isaiah 40:2)

It seems that the Jewish people require a double measure of comfort because their punishment has been doubled, a view validated by midrashic sources (e.g. Midrash Tanchuma Devarim 1).

Whatever the intention of the verses, we are only too familiar with this ‘double punishment’ – the media distortions, the obvious double standards of Israel’s detractors (where are the mass demonstrations against daily massacres in Syria and exterminations in Iraq?) and the frequent uncritical adoption of a single version of a war narrative, when, as always, there are multiple perspectives.

If we are subject to ‘double punishment’, we need double comfort, as God demanded from our prophets.  They must replace pain with comfort, negativity with positivity and despair with hope.

But today there are no prophets and so the call of Isaiah must go out to their modern-day substitutes – the leaders of our communities.  That call is not restricted to rabbis or other formal leaders, but it goes out to everyone engaged in Jewish life who is able to do something.  All of us can write a letter to an MP or minister, respond to a blog-post, speak out sensibly against all bias and bigotry, attend an event, support communal efforts to counteract the negativity and inspire others to do likewise.

An unfathomable aspect of the current situation is the unwillingness of many free-world leaders to articulate something obvious.  Many of those who violently attack and seek the ultimate elimination of the State of Israel, and especially their financial backers, harbour the same long-term intentions towards Christians and, indeed, the whole of Western society.  As much as we worry about events in Israel and Europe, we are not oblivious to the brutal, barbaric persecutions of Christians and Yazidis in Iraq.  I believe that Israel and the Jews are just first in line; in reality, the very fabric of our society is imperilled for all people, regardless of faith or creed.  Emphasising these threats is one way of focusing the attention of others.

Yet as well as highlighting these wrongs, we must double our message of hope and comfort.  If the pain is doubled, the message of hope must be doubly powerful.

The importance of articulating the message is highlighted by Isaiah a few verses further into his prophecy:

על הר גבה עלי לך מבשרת ציון הרימי בכח קולך מבשרת ירושלם הרימי אל תיראי

Ascend a high mountain, herald of Zion.  Raise your voice powerfully, herald of Jerusalem.  Raise it, do not be afraid... (Isaiah 40:9)

 We have to carry our message of hope to high places and speak it where it can be heard.  We should never underestimate the impact we can have, nor where we have friends – sometimes critical friends – but friends nonetheless.  They are everywhere, members of every religious groups – Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists – and of none.  They exist at the workplace, among journalists and at universities.  We must redouble our efforts to build friendly, functional relationships with them, even when we disagree about Israel, or, indeed, anything else.

This is one message of hope.  The other is that that our voice, even if it small, cannot and will not be silenced.

נחמו נחמו עמי יאמר אלקיכם