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.