I hear that it is the conceit of every generation that its times are unique and demand innovative responses to familiar situations. Usually, as the French say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
However, in at least one circumstance, our generation has reached a fulcrum point that cannot be ignored. Created by the quarantine demands of the coronavirus, synagogues have had to innovate the way in which worship is conducted. Since gatherings in close quarters to speak and sing posed a danger to health and even life, any community not in denial has had to choose between discontinuing in-person communal worship or including a virtual platform for participation. Most chose the latter, though not all in the same way.
Some limited online worship to weekdays out of respect for shabbat restrictions. Some abridged the service to omit the sections that require the presence of a minyan (quorum) in person, usually with the exception of the Mourner’s Kaddish, recited by the bereaved and those recalling the anniversary of a close relative’s death. Some allowed for a hybrid platform, inviting a minimal number of people to the synagogue, and including others through an online link. Some opted for the interactive online approach, e.g., Zoom, and others for livestreaming, the internet equivalent of a broadcast on television.
This much is certain: after more than two years, alternative ways of attending worship have become integrated into the lives of those who conduct worship and those who participate.
This is not the first time that technology has redefined collective prayer, including the complicating factor of an unexpected catastrophe that made change necessary. For example, Ezra, the Biblical scribe, committed the heretofore oral transmission of the Torah to parchment and instituted public readings to take advantage of the twice-weekly crowds in the marketplace. At least part of his motivation was the influx of foreign spouses in the Jewish community whose unfamiliarity with the requirements of Jewish practice was, in his perception, reducing the commitment of the Jewish family members.
The custom of reading from the Torah on Mondays and Thursdays survived the reliance on the commercial marketplace and took its place in the synagogue, especially after the locus of collective ritual practice shifted from the destroyed Temple (and early local sacrificial altars) to buildings dedicated to gatherings for ritual prayer and learning. Initial practice in the Holy Land was individualized by community; it took more or less than three years for any locality to complete the reading of the Torah, depending on the expositions prepared by local scholars.
Eventually, the reading of the Torah was formalized and codified into a yearly cycle, especially as the dispersion of the Jews throughout the world created a need to keep everyone literally on the same page for the sake of unity. The development of vocalization and cantillation marks, what we today might call vowels and musical notations, influenced by other surrounding cultures, also innovated the study and presentation of the sacred texts, not only of the Torah, but of the entire Bible (including the narratives about Ezra the scribe).
Once the regimen of prayer became more usual, technology and circumstance also provoked change and some measure of standardization. The central, perhaps original, section of the various daily worship services became known as the “18” (in Hebrew, “Sh’moneh Esrei”) for the number of standardized blessings that were recited, beginning close to 2000 years ago. Famously, one rabbi taught that if one could not recite the full 18 as standardized, it was better to recite “something like (the) 18,” that is, an approximation in either number or content.
The popularity of gathering for worship demanded the construction of larger and more sophisticated synagogue buildings, and the development of experts in conducting the standardized services. Today we call those professionals cantors and rabbis; then they were called only “emissaries of the community” (a term still used to describe the leaders of worship generically). The synagogue in Alexandria, Egypt was so large and so well-attended that people farther to the back could not hear the leader clearly, so technology was deployed: flags were waved to signal the liturgical responses even if the worshippers were not technically participating in the reading of the prayers.
Everything changed with the invention and popular spread of the printing press. Now, the entirety of the liturgy could be put in the hands of the individual. There was no need to rely on an expert or savant who had memorized the prayers. The technology drove the atomization of the community – people could gather for communal worship in groups as small as 10, and individuals unable to attend such a gathering could be certain they followed to the letter what was once a bit more free-form. In fact, the improvisation of prayer was virtually eliminated once it was codified in print.
And speaking of the minyan, it is worth noting that even in that formative period of public worship, there was a debate over the use of technology. Finding a quorum of ten sometimes presented a challenge. What constituted a worshiper, the rabbis asked? Could a “golem,” a legendary creature sculpted of mud and animated by an incantation, be counted to round out a group of nine men? (No, they answered.)
To this point, it is worth noting that in retrospect, all the debates over changes were resolved. Some were resolved by debate, others by fiat and still others by practical circumstances. However, until they were resolved definitively after some greater or lesser period of time, practice was fluid, with some communities relying on different modes of presenting Torah, some reciting different versions of the prayers, some allowing different ways of including ten for minyan. (No one included a golem, by the way. However, some included people unable to hear and/or respond to the prayers.)
These few examples from many others illustrate the challenge facing us today as we try to maintain one of the central markers of a sustainable Jewish community: collective worship. Whether the service is conducted three times each day, as in those communities that consider themselves traditional, or only on Shabbat, as in those communities that do not organize daily worship – or any configuration in between – to the point of the emergence of covid-19, the only standard for communal worship was gathering in person. Even those few communities that cultivated an online presence continued to hold a ”live” service whenever the virtual presence was included.
During this past year I was bereaved and undertook to recite Mourner’s Kaddish three times a day for eleven months. What would have been a frantic dash around town in more normative times became a simple click of a mouse early morning and late afternoon (for afternoon and evening prayers). The online communities I visited, each with its own rules for determining a minyan, were mostly well-attended every day. Even synagogues that struggled to gather ten in person found a regular attendance in multiples of ten on any given weekday morning or afternoon. The one I attend most regularly can count on twenty-five to thirty worshipers on the slowest day. A Saturday night service from another congregation regularly attracts upwards of sixty, despite the irregularity of the time the sun sets from week to week. The worship itself took some getting-used-to for a person like me, familiar with being among others in person. But the community that formed around that service was warm and personal, almost never including the impatience of someone who was called to help “make the minyan” or whose bus to work was leaving precariously close to the end of a service even slightly delayed.
Indeed, the conversations taking place among these online worshipers now surrounds the question of whether and when to return to in-person worship and what to do about those who have come to rely on the spiritual nourishment and social interaction of virtual gatherings. Overwhelmingly – even among those who will return to in-person worship – there is an insistence about the importance of an on-line option.
What will the rules turn out to be? Part of the answer depends on the nature of the question. Is the goal of daily worship to maintain the format for worship or to widen the population that participates? That is to say, is it better to struggle daily to gather ten people in person or to encourage twenty-five to continue to join virtually?
I believe the lesson of our history is to seek a balance between precedent and innovation. The goal of a learning and striving Jewish community should not be merely bragging rights that a dozen devoted individuals maintain the minimum of ten for daily worship. Rather, the opportunity for dozens more to engage regularly and to encourage friends and fellow Jews to participate should drive our willingness to take advantage of this change in circumstance forced upon us and be the impetus for a new and additional way for people to be full participants in the practice of daily prayer.
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I spent 35 years in the pulpit and learned a few things about the people and the profession