Dostoevsky, Dickens and the Jews
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
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.
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’.
 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.
 Avot 2:9.
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
Where these quiet moments have led me and their intersection with certain recent developments will be covered in my next post later this week.