A Conservative movement ruling that would allow synagogues to Zoom Shabbat and High Holiday services is testing the boundaries of Judaism’s centrist denomination.
Although many rabbis are praising the ruling as an essential accommodation to a once-in-a-generation emergency, others are asking how far they can bend Jewish law and not break. And it’s causing some rabbis to call into question the very nature of a religious service.
Until now, Conservative rabbis have mostly used Zoom and other electronic conferencing services for weekday services, when Shabbat and holiday prohibitions on using electronics and broadcast technology do not apply.
With social-distancing restrictions likely to be in effect through the fall, several rabbis told The Jewish Week Tuesday that they are now seriously reviewing their prohibition against technology on Shabbat.
Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky, spiritual leader of Congregation Ansche Chesed on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, has decided to lift his opposition to it. He emailed his congregation last Friday that beginning the first day of Shavuot, May 29, the congregation will begin streaming services on holidays and Shabbat and do so “for as long as Covid prevents us from gathering in person.”
“It is one thing to cancel Shabbat morning services for eight weeks (so far),” he wrote. “It’s quite another for our community not to gather indefinitely to celebrate Shabbat and Hagim [holidays], even past the High Holidays. That’s just not going to work for Ansche Chesed, as it does not for most liberal communities. We have to change.”
In an email interview, he said last week’s ruling “has not changed my views. I don’t want to have electronic services now or ever. … But this pandemic is not anyone’s first choice. It is a crisis, and the members of our community simply could not endure without shared public tefillah [prayer] on Shabbat and holidays for an indefinite time.”
Rabbi Kalmanofsky added: “It was obvious and inevitable that we were going to have to use such a platform for the High Holidays, so the logic became overwhelming that we should start meeting what our congregants needed, and to do it sooner rather than later.”
Written by Rabbi Joshua Heller of Congregation B’nai Torah in Atlanta, a member of the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, the teshuva, or legal ruling, recognizes the traditional Shabbat restrictions on using electricity and technology. However, it notes that a streaming alternative would lessen the pressure on synagogues to open their buildings too early, would allow individuals to engage in prayers that must be said in a quorum, or minyan, and would aid those who may suffer from isolation while forced to stay at home.
At the Hollis Hills Bayside Jewish Center, Rabbi David Wise said his congregation has not “come to anything resembling a decision yet for the High Holy Days. The teshuvah [ruling] just came out.
“One of the things I appreciate is that the … committee is very concerned about preserving Shabbat,” he added. “We are going to have to weigh a lot of different factors in deciding what to do with this teshuvah. There is a lot to consider.”
Rabbi Wise said the ruling is in keeping with a movement that “weigh[s] many different factors. … We take halachic considerations and big Jewish principles very seriously in conversation with each other.”
The ruling advises congregants to log on for Friday night services before Shabbat and leave their devices on. Like most CJLS rulings, the guidance contains many caveats and leaves it up to individual rabbis to decide what is best for their communities. It includes a detailed discussion of what prayers do and don’t need to be recited and heard in person.
“We are dealing with unprecedented challenges in providing the Jewish people with opportunities for communal prayer, celebrating lifecycle events and staying connected to Jewish life,” Rabbi Stewart Vogel, president of the Rabbinical Assembly, said of the teshuvah. “We believe in the ability of our rabbis to face these challenges and want to provide you with resources to be able to do so.”
There are about 1,700 rabbis in the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly who identify as Conservative. Before the teshuvah a spokesperson for the movement said there are no figures on how many pulpit rabbis livestreamed Sabbath services, but it is believed that most did. Now, with the publication of the teshuvah, the spokesperson said “all but a handful use streaming.”
Rabbi Rachel Ain of Sutton Place Synagogue is among the Conservative rabbis who have decided to allow worship services online on Shabbat and High Holy days. “[C]onvening our community during these moments, at the moment when they occur, has not only maintained our connections, but has provided our community members with the comfort that communal Judaism doesn’t pause, even if NY is on Pause,” she wrote in a letter to congregants.
The Traditional End
Expressing grave reservations about streaming on Shabbat and the Jewish holidays is Rabbi Lisa Malik of Temple Beth Ahm of Aberdeen, N.J.
“I’m very much on the traditional end and my concerns about streaming are mostly Jewish law related,” she explained. Invoking halachah, or Jewish law, she said, “I do not feel comfortable using electronics on Shabbat or holidays, and stopping its use is one of the few freedoms we have. We are tied to our devices now more than ever. It’s turning us into zombies. On Shabbat and holidays you have to make a distinction and a key aspect of the holiness of Shabbat is unplugging and abstaining from the use of technology.”
She said the only way she would consider livestreaming for the High Holy Days would be if the pandemic still posed a threat and that it would not be used after the virus threat abated. “I do not believe there is ANY reason to violate halacha on a regular Shabbat,” she added in an email.
Rabbi Malik said she knew of only two colleagues who agreed with her and that she “felt very isolated, very much in the minority.”
Rabbi Eliot Malomet of the Highland Park Conservative Temple in Highland Park, N.J., said the teshuvah “put those of us who are more traditionally inclined on the defensive when I think we should be supported. I am not persuaded by the arguments for streaming, and will not allow my shul to do so.”
He worries that streaming will create a culture of virtual services. “I understand that for people who are isolated and distant having some access to a religious community is important; I am sensitive to that. But there are many other ways to gain access that do not involve the possibility of transgressing the sanctity of Shabbat,” he said.
He suggested that instead of spending thousands of dollars installing cameras in synagogues, the money be used to “teach our congregants how to run their own services in their own homes, with people they feel safe with.”
The Conservative movement, positioned between strictly traditional Orthodoxy and the liberal Reform and Reconstructing Judaism movements, is often the most conflicted of the denominations when it comes to contemplating change, from ordaining women rabbis (which it began doing in 1987) to allowing its rabbis to perform interfaith weddings (which is still prohibited). Its rabbis consider halacha binding, but also consider applying the law a dynamic process that allows for accommodations to modernity.
How far those accommodations go is at the core of the debate over the latest ruling. Arnold Eisen, the current chancellor of the movement’s flagship seminary, The Jewish Theological Seminary, presided over his last commencement this week. The next chancellor, wrote Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of Manhattan’s Park Avenue Synagogue in the Forward, will like his predecessors, have to “navigate the upheavals of our time all the while staying true to [the seminary’s] historic mission.”
Rabbi Joel Levinson of the Midway Jewish Center in Syosset, L.I., emphasized the unusual circumstances of the outbreak. “Whatever we do, it would be only for this very unique period of time,” he said.
“While we have not made a decision yet, more than this being an issue of halacha, it is an issue of inclusion and accessibility. We want to make sure that people can continue to stay connected with the community.”
Also pondering his decision is Rabbi Arthur Weiner, spiritual leader of The Jewish Community Center of Paramus/Congregation Beth Tikvah in New Jersey. It is a “very vexing issue for me,” he said. “Up to this point, we felt strongly that the various technologies that were out there before the pandemic were not consistent with traditional observance of Shabbat, even within the parameters of the Conservative movement. And the nuances of the teshuvah, I am concerned, will be lost on many of our members who are quite comfortable with the technology and are happy to utilize it on Shabbat and holidays.”
Rabbi Alberto Zeilicovich, spiritual leader of Temple Beth Sholom in Fairlawn, N.J., said his traditional congregation publicizes the online classes and Sabbath services offered by the three other Conservative synagogues in the area because it does not hold Sabbath and holiday services. But he said the High Holy Days may change that.
“My hope is we will go back to the shul, but if that is not the case there will be a meeting with the officers of the shul, the ritual committee and the rabbi to determine what to do,” he said.
Also hoping to be able to reopen for the High Holy Days is Beth Sholom Synagogue in Memphis, Tenn.
“Things are different in Tennessee than in New York and we don’t know yet what will be allowed,” said its rabbi, Sarit Horwitz. “I can’t say for sure what future decisions will be like, but I can say that right now using live-stream and engaged with it on Shabbat is not coherent with my vision of a Shabbat celebration.”
Stewart Ain is a Jewish Week staff writer; Johanna Ginsberg is a New Jersey Jewish News staff writer.