Is the coronavirus revolutionizing the way Jews pray?

The closure of synagogues in Israel, the US, in Europe and elsewhere has raised questions about alternative strategies including online prayer services and online Jewish education.

Limited priestly blessing takes place during Passover at the Western Wall, Jerusalem, April 12, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Limited priestly blessing takes place during Passover at the Western Wall, Jerusalem, April 12, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Judaism may be in the throes of a long–term revolution to become an online religion – generated by the coronavirus crisis. The impact of the crisis for Jewish communities and social distancing has focused attention on the question of coronavirus’s impact on synagogue life.
Just when prayer is taking on a far more popular dimension in this crisis than in normal times, it is also suffering from the need for social distancing. The closure of synagogues in Israel, the US, in Europe and elsewhere has raised questions about alternative strategies including online prayer services and online Jewish education.
The requirement of social distancing – and especially staying in one’s own home – has raised questions regarding the potential of the online media in religious worship. Orthodox Judaism has so far rejected the possibility of online religion and online prayer services – and refer back to the dictum in the Shulhan Arukh that a minyan (quorum) – the minimum to hold a communal prayer services – requires 10 men to be in the same room physically and the cantor or prayer leader with them. Anyone who is outside the room is not regarded as part of the minyan. Some rabbis argue that prayer has to be in its natural form, and that prayer communicated via electronic signals is invalid.
Orthodox minyanim, so far, do not recognize the possibility that people dispersed across different places may link up through, say, telephone or other electronic means – such as Skype or most recently, the Zoom videoconferencing platform – to form a quorum. Yet an inspection of sources suggests, however, that the requirement that the minyan has to be physical in nature, and not virtual, is perhaps not so clear cut. For example, one early rabbi, Yehoshua Ben Levi is quoted, in a minority opinion in the Babylonian Talmud Tractate Pesachim (85b), that the relationship between God and His people is indivisible and can traverse any physical barrier – which might be interpreted as permitting a virtual minyan. Indeed, it may be argued that had the Shulhan Arukh been codified today it would surely have taken into account the reality of the media revolution – particularly since the institution of the minyan does not possess strictly Biblical origins.
But while a minyan formed entirely on the Internet is ruled out by the Orthodox and Conservative Jewish streams, the possibilities of linking up to an existing physical minyan for one who cannot reach the synagogue has been raised by some Conservative rabbis and a few Orthodox rabbis, but one which would albeit be limited to “passive” participation of reciting the prayers with the cantor. Against the background of the coronavirus emergency, the Chief Rabbinate suggested this.
Conservative Judaism refers, like the Orthodox, to the ruling of the Shulhan Arukh. Yet more Conservative communities today have adopted livestreaming, notwithstanding the generally strict observance on the usage of electricity on Shabbat. In a ruling about the coronavirus, the Conservative movement’s Jewish Law Committee has taken a more flexible line: while the Committee “had not made a formal ruling on livestreaming on Shabbat and Yom Tov (Jewish holidays), but for the current coronavirus crisis, those congregations that are already offering streaming and that are still able to hold services with a minyan should encourage members whose health may be at risk should make use of the live streaming option if the alternative would be a health risk.”
Even Reform poskim (rabbis who make Jewish law decisions) argue that the world we live in is a physical one – not a virtual one – and this should reflect the style of prayer. But Reform Judaism gives individual communities freedom to decide, leaving their role as lawmaking to be only advisory. Many Reform communities broadcast prayer services from the off–line synagogue or temple through the synagogue’s web site, enabling people who are unable to attend the service – such as for reasons of ill-health – to nevertheless participate in the service from afar. To be sure, this was preceded for years with the broadcasting of Megilat Esther on radio stations like that used by Temple Emanuel, the leading Reform community in New York.
Indeed, there is evidence that once the Reform community goes online there is greater participation. For example, when Temple Solel in Hollywood, Florida moved services to Facebook in the face of the Coronavirus crisis last month, 223 people “attended” the service – in contrast to an average on a regular Shabbat of 40 who attend in person. And Shabbat morning, which generally brings a meager minyan, had 150 people. Indeed, the next day’s Sunday school rose to 350 students.
Most advanced is one humanist congregation, Beth Adam, located in Loveland, Ohio, with its sophisticated online community – OurJewishCommunity.Org. In addition to broadcasting Shabbat and holiday services either from the sanctuary or from a studio adjacent to it, the website offers access to rabbis, education materials, resources about Jewish religious holidays and life-cycle events, audio files of sermons and Torah readings, and social networking.
The possibilities for “active” participation such as the recitation of the mourner’s Kaddish prayer by a Jew – repeated by the children of the deceased for an 11-month period after death – not at the service itself has been ruled out by most Orthodox rabbis and been conditioned by the Conservative movement’s Jewish law committee on that at the very least another mourner is reciting Kaddish at the minyan, and that the Jew reciting Kaddish from afar is required to be seen and heard by the rest of the minyan, such as via a smartphone or on Skype.
A separate question concerns the question of online prayer services on the Shabbat and Jewish festivals when the synagogue is most attended like Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. The prohibition of activating electricity – regarded by Jewish law as an act of work and, therefore, prohibited on the Shabbat by different religious streams – suggests that even if a solution in Jewish religious law (halacha) to an online connection to a physical minyan on weekdays were found, it would be even more difficult regarding one on Shabbat. An exception is Reform Judaism, which allows electricity use on Shabbat if it enhances the religious atmosphere (such as traveling to Temple services on Shabbat and Jewish holidays).
In an earth-shattering religious ruling in March, a group of senior Orthodox Sephardi rabbis in Israel suggested that the Seder on Passover this year could have been held through an Internet connection via Zoom, enabling those alone to link up with their families. The ruling draws on a ruling that Moroccan Orthodoxy use electricity on religious holidays, notably Yom Tov – as distinct from the Shabbat – because they argue that turning on a switch is not regarded as forbidden work.
This ruling has generated a fierce debate in the rabbinical echelons of Israeli Orthodoxy who castigated the ruling. Yet it found certain support. Thus, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, rabbi of the city of Efrat and the former rabbi of New York’s Lincoln Square Synagogue, told an Israeli newspaper that if the computer was set up for the Seder before the commencement of the Yom Tov and not turned off until its end, this could be allowed.
It may be argued that in the future if the electrical connect–up of the time clock device is preprogrammed prior to the Shabbat, which observant Jews have used for many years for heating and lighting during the 24–hour Shabbat period, this could be extended to online prayer services for all streams, including the Orthodox. Participating in prayer services or hearing shiurim online would undoubtedly be a creative way of enhancing the spiritual quality of the holyday at home.
On the first night of Passover this year, Benny Lau, former rabbi of Jerusalem’s Ramban Synagogue was filmed conducting a mock Seder, which was filmed prior to the festival, and subsequently broadcast in the evening on Israel Television in a TV channel especially set up for the purpose of broadcasting the Seder on the holiday itself.
Among criticism of the Moroccan rabbinical permission is that it would lead to wholesale usage of electricity, and that a decision made only for the coronavirus emergency would subsequently later become the norm.
Other questions raised concern were events such as shiva (mourning), bar mitzvahs and weddings with heavy limits in Israel during coronavirus to only 10 people. A shiva visit to a Persian Jewish family in Great Neck, New York, resulted in many people being infected with Coronavirus, and shiva visits later took on a virtual dimension with visits and participation by Skype. After the death on Passover of Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, Israel’s former Sephardi Chief Rabbi, his funeral – which in normal times would have brought thousands to pay their respects – was attended by only a handful of mourners, in accordance with Health Ministry instructions.
To be true, mourning rituals well before coronavirus have benefited from the Internet era. Burial societies have erected recording devices at Jewish cemeteries so that funeral services at cemeteries may be streamed on the Internet. This enables those who are unable to attend a funeral, (due partly to the Jewish custom of burial close to the time of death) to be nevertheless present “virtually,” including from abroad, at the funeral. And, the custom of comforting mourners during the seven-day shiva or mourning period after the funeral has taken on an Internet connection, with some people sending condolences by e-mail or telephone.
Notwithstanding the questions raised by coronavirus, other features of Judaism have already been adapted to the online era, and show how the spiritual and religious life of Jews has benefited from the technological era. Thanks to the Internet, “tehillim campaigns” (the recitation of chapters of the Book of Psalms) have become cross–border, embracing Jewish communities worldwide. Charity giving is done on Internet, making e–charity or e-tzedaka into a growing area of Jewish philanthropy. The moral and religious obligation of returning lost objects to its owner has also taken on Internet dimensions – with an informal website or noticeboard for announcing “lost and found.”
Prayer services at the Western Wall may be seen on the Internet. Jews have been leaving prayers messages in the Western Wall, for hundreds of years. But since Internet people have been sending their prayers by email, or by fax, to the Western Wall Heritage Foundation which downloads and prints the message and places them in the crevices of the Kotel. The custom during the intermediate days of the festival for the ceremony at the Kotel of the Blessing of the Priests (Kohanim) – which normally draws tens of thousands – was held with a bare quorum of priests and streamed on the Net.
Notwithstanding the central role of prayer in the Jewish religious ritual, an even bigger revolution is online Judaism’s impact in the educational field. It enables individuals to be educated online. The closure of a yeshiva in the past threatened religious learning. But long distance learning is entering the world of Jewish learning. One yeshiva, the Web Yeshiva, for example, has for years provided online religious lessons enabling individuals in the different time zones wherever they are in the World to participate. Skype and Zoom also provide opportunities for individuals – even Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) who shun the Internet – to study together.
In the aftermath of the outbreak of coronavirus, and their closure, yeshivot in Israel affiliated with the modern Orthodox stream, came together under “One Yeshiva” to offer a plethora of online shiurim from a broad spectrum yeshivot in the national-religious sector. Judaism Un Bound, Torah Anytime, Yeshiva University, online semicha (rabbinical ordination) programs like Pluralistic Rabbinical Seminary each offer Jewish educational portals.
Rabbis have been flooded with religious questions during the coronavirus affair. Online media have enabled individuals to consult rabbis from afar and seek their advice on a host of questions as an alternative to consulting the local synagogue rabbi.
Online rabbinical counseling has generated a debate among rabbis about the pluses and minuses of the phenomenon. It also offers privacy and anonymity – when the earlier model of consulting rabbis in one’s community required one to identify oneself. Critics of online rabbinic counseling say, firstly, that online answers proffered by rabbis are too short.
Secondly, they note that when the rabbi is unacquainted with the questioner, personal circumstances cannot be taken into consideration, even though sometimes the personal circumstances of the questioner can be crucial in particular instances. Thirdly, quoting the dictum “Make for yourself a rabbi,” of the Mishnaic tome Ethics of the Fathers, former Israeli Chief Rabbi Yonah Metzger characterized the rabbi not only as being a functionary but also being a role model to emulate and identify with. One would not “make oneself a rabbi” if one already has a virtual rabbi. Fourthly, instead of accepting the decision of the rabbi, people might be inclined to “shop around” to different online rabbis to find the reply most acceptable and comfortable to them. Fifthly, the ease of online counseling discourages the Jew from studying the original sources in the halachic literature.
It is still early days to evaluate the full implications of Internet upon Jewish religious identity. Research on online religion suggests first that the wider environment – including the digital media – are replacing long–existing structures like off-line rabbis, synagogues and yeshivot. By widening the marketplace of religious ideas, it has been claimed by some educators that the Internet weakens rabbinical hierarchies, and new media threatens religious loyalties.
Implied is that individuals such as those not strictly religious who are not affiliated with a Jewish community are today nevertheless drawing a sense of Jewish identity through their exposure to the wider media. In this sense, religious identity has widened.
A survey of Israeli Jews and their usage of media and religious content carried out by the author found that 35 per cent of those defining themselves as “modern Orthodox” used the Internet for religion content “continually” or “much of the time.” It contrasted with 25% of Haredim. Moreover, 47% of Haredim used it “infrequently” or “not at all” in contrast to 34% of modern Orthodox. Only 21% of secular respondents used it “all the time” or “a great deal” – reflecting their lack of interest or need for religion information. Incrementally lower findings were found for all streams regarding drawing religious information from social networks or forums. However, in drawing on religious applications, the Haredim were slightly more higher than modern Orthodox. And, Haredim (18%) were significantly more inclined than modern Orthodox (8%) to use religious applications to solve halachic problems.
Major differences were found between the 20-35 age group and those over the age of 50, reflecting lesser computer abilities among the latter. Yet the extent to which the digital age impacts beyond those already affiliated with Jewish religious institutions and extends to those unaffiliated is unclear. A 2009 survey by the Guttman Institute of Applied Social Research suggests that mostly the modern Orthodox and its stricter sub-group “Haredi nationalists” use the Internet for religion information, and the secular hardly at all.
But regarding the cardinal question of whether religious hierarchies are weakened in the online age, 70% and 56% of modern Orthodox and Haredi Jews respectively disagreed, according to the author’s survey. So did 48% of secular respondents. Overall, less than 20% of all respondents “agreed to a large extent.” Some 25% and 19% of Haredi and modern Orthodox respondents respectively did “agree to a certain extent.”
Rabbis and Jewish educators are beginning to come to terms with the implications of the information age, and with their own changing role. But the hesitancy of some rabbis to exploit the potential which digital media offers raises the question whether a bureaucratic felt need for self-preservation – whether the rabbi is of a synagogue or an educational institution like the yeshiva – is also a motivating factor not to incorporate the digital media in Judaism based only on purely and singly halachic considerations.
If Jewish life is today being enhanced through the application of technology like Torah educational websites, the traditional frameworks of the off-line community, synagogue, Jewish study and yeshiva study, remain paramount. This is particularly true in the case of the Haredim, but also to a considerable extent for the modern Orthodox. Notwithstanding the manifold changes which the digital age has brought, Jewish religious practice remains overwhelmingly off-line.
Professor Yoel Cohen is on the faculty of The School of Communication, Ariel University. His books include God, Jews & the Media: Religion & Israel’s media; and Spiritual News: Reporting Religion Around the World