Reimagining Judaism after COVID-19

Will Jewish life undergo a metamorphosis the day after the pandemic?

Jewish men attend morning prayer as they keeping distance from one another as part of measures to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus, at a synagogue in the Jewish settlement of Efrat, in Gush Etzion (photo credit: GERSHON ELINSON/FLASH90)
Jewish men attend morning prayer as they keeping distance from one another as part of measures to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus, at a synagogue in the Jewish settlement of Efrat, in Gush Etzion
(photo credit: GERSHON ELINSON/FLASH90)
Will Jewish life undergo a metamorphosis the day after the pandemic?
The astronomical cost of private Jewish education, particularly in the Diaspora, has been a frequent topic of discussion among parents, educators, communal leaders and philanthropists. Many innovative solutions have been proposed with varying degrees of success.
Philanthropic efforts have increased substantially over the years, but this might been more difficult in the post-COVID-19 economic era. The problem is real and has put much economic strain on young couples – and even grandparents who feel obligated to help while worrying about their own financial resources for a long retirement and its associated healthcare costs.
I have even heard of committed couples having to forego a yeshiva education for their children, which certainly impacts on their future choice of professions and potential domestic harmony.
Perhaps the lessons we have learned during the pandemic can point a way out of this quagmire. Can more yeshiva education be done online, thus decreasing the need for physical space and its associated costs? I envision a scenario in which master teachers can record lectures for hundreds of students, thus freeing up time for in-person teachers to give more personal attention to each student.
Can’t secular subjects take advantage of all the resources available on the Internet to teach music, art and even enrichment classes and some special services that many students require? Many students already use this model on their own, and many Jewish organizations and educational institutions are already pooling their resources and expertise in these areas.
In the medical profession, to which I belong, we rely on data and evidence to make life-and-death decisions. In education, too, studies are needed to ascertain whether these new kinds of education lead to the desired outcome of well-adjusted, committed and knowledgeable Orthodox Jews. We can also learn from other groups such as Chabad, which has had much experience with on-line education.
Cost-effective education does not have to be inferior, and it can reach from the simplest to the most advanced levels. This model might be appropriate for Jewish university education. Of course, there are social issues involved in this model and they also need to be addressed.
Community life
The second-most common topic among committed Jewish families is the astronomical cost of weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs, which in some ways are a reflection of the consumer-driven culture to which we in the Jewish community have also become captive. The cost of having these extravagant affairs has put more strain on many families.
It is unconscionable that financial considerations are part of the equation in choosing whether or not to live a committed Jewish life. Initiatives to decrease the costs of events and limit the number of celebrants have been developed, but they have been mostly unsuccessful in the Modern-Orthodox community.
Life during the COVID pandemic has shown us that we can celebrate our smahot, joyous occasions, with fewer people and less extravagance, and still celebrate these important life-cycle events. We should not lose this opportunity. As the government has limited our affairs to 50 or 200 people, we as a community should continue to do so in the post-COVID world.
This will make the smahot one goes to more meaningful and lessen the burden of living an Jewish life. And believe me, no one will miss another smorgasbord (maybe we will all be healthier, too).
In my community (and many others in Israel) street minyanim (prayer quorums) have proliferated. People stand outside their homes or in their gardens, and if there are 10 men present (there are various guidelines in Jewish law regarding specific conditions), they form a minyan for davening, (praying), for Torah reading and for saying Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer.
In many of these minyanim, families sit together outside their homes and daven together. They follow the opinion in Halacha, Jewish law, that since they are not in a synagogue, a mehitza, a physical barrier between the sexes, is not required. Some of these groups resemble the Havurah minyanim in private homes that were popular in the 1970s.
When Israel first lifted corona-related restrictions, some of which have since been reimposed, many of these street minyanim were reluctant to stop functioning. Synagogues have to provide congregants with reasons to come back. Synagogue-centered adult education might not be a sufficient reason for many, as congregants can now listen to world-class scholars, from their homes, on the Internet.
This might be a bigger problem in the non-Orthodox community, where so much of Jewish life is centered on the synagogue. These communities have to find ways to energize their congregants to live a committed and fulfilling Jewish life without the benefit of a unifying physical space. There is an opportunity to engage with the youth, as they are much more comfortable than their parents’ generation when it comes to this mode of interaction.
If synagogue life has suffered, the value of community has not lessened. For example, people have recognized the importance of mourning rituals, such as the seven-day period of sitting shiva. They are starving for personal interactions and support during these difficult times.
The community has also been a beacon of strength and support for many people, including the homebound elderly, and has helped organize and focus the altruistic motives of many young people through various volunteer initiatives.
While many families have struggled and suffered through these many months of quarantine, others have been reinvigorated because of the experience. Instead of adults and children spending time outside of the house, they have been forced to spend quality time together.
We already discussed the challenges to education as a result of COVID-19, however, we must remember that the primary educational responsibility for transmission of our faith falls upon the parents, not the schools.
Too often, families transfer this obligation to the yeshiva, forgetting that the primary responsibility is on them. For many families, this time spent together has been an opportunity for parents to retake their roles as primary transmitters of Jewish learning and traditions.
Likewise, one must not forget that the primary responsible to care for our elderly parents lies with the children and not with the caregivers, to the point that there is an extensive discussion in Jewish law about whether one is even allowed to deputize this care.
With parents living longer, the known dangers of being in a long-term care facility, and the unknown long-term availability of foreign caregivers, more of the responsibility for the care of elderly parents will likely fall on their children.
The pandemic has also accelerated the process by which the social life of adolescents and young adults takes place over the Internet. This has obvious ramifications for the functioning of Jewish social and youth groups, Jewish singles’ life and dating.
COVID-19 has had a complex impact on the relationship of the laity with the rabbinical leadership. With the advent of modern technology, laypeople can approach “super rabbis” virtually with their halachic questions, bypassing their local rabbis. That has also increased to a great extent during the current crisis.
The pandemic seems to have accelerated the process to a point where the local rabbi is no longer the final decisor but is subject to the authority of a halachic expert who is not part of the community. Rabbis who recognized their limitations were quickly accepted as moral, spiritual and halachic authorities.
The lesson that needs to be learned from the crisis is that rabbis are halachic, moral and spiritual experts but not medical, economic or political experts. The belief in “da’at Torah” – the idea that rabbis have special wisdom in non-halachic or “non-spiritual” matters – failed during the crisis and did not serve their communities well.
The pace of the modern world and the rapid transfer of information makes it impossible for rabbis to be experts in areas outside of Torah. It is crucial for the future of rabbinic leadership that this lesson is taken to heart.
But the crisis also offers an opportunity for rabbis to lead their communities, not only through educational and intellectual initiatives, but also by increasing personal interactions and ensuring the social welfare of their communities in these difficult times.
Israel-Diaspora relationship
It is obvious to all observers that there is a dichotomy in the relationships of the Orthodox vs. the non-Orthodox to the State of Israel. Many in the non-Orthodox world, and particularly the young people, have grown distant from Zionism and Israel. The reasons for this distancing have been much discussed and are not the subject of this essay.
But for all denominations, visits to Israel are crucial to maintaining a relationship. From summer programs, Birthright, gap-year programs, missions and family trips, these experiences strengthen the relationship and are crucial. If travel to Israel is limited for the near future, perhaps more efforts can be made to forge virtual relationships between Israeli and American youths either through schools or youth groups.
In addition, while clearly not a direct result of the limited social interactions during the crisis, but perhaps exacerbated by it, there is the recent intensification of the cultural wars in America. This might make support for Israel a litmus test for certain political affiliations, supplanting the traditional American bipartisan support.
This can also exacerbate the distancing of the non-Orthodox from Israel, and be disastrous for the idea and belief in the unity of the Jewish people. New initiatives to strengthen the Israel-Diaspora relationship, based on our common heritage and values, are desperately needed.
A new Jewish theology is waiting to be developed and debated. I don’t mean that we should try to find reasons and people to blame for the pandemic. Rav Soloveitchik has taught us that this is a useless endeavor, as man cannot even pretend to know or understand God’s actions. But for those of us brought up on a theology that extols man’s desire and ability to control the natural world, the pandemic has taught us humility and the limits of human power and achievement.
I am afraid that the pandemic might be the harbinger of new global diseases that threaten humankind. In addition, the looming climate catastrophe that threatens our planet might bring more social distress and economic uncertainty to a world already struggling with inequality and conflict between the haves and have-nots.
The 20th-century technological and scientific revolution that was supposed to bring prosperity to the world seems to have bypassed many of the world’s citizens. In order to stay relevant, a new Jewish theology has to be developed that recognizes the precariousness of our natural resources, balances man’s quest for innovation with the limits of its power, and advocates for equality and justice.
As Rav Soloveitchik taught, a true Jewish theology has to be anchored in the Halacha, and many of these ideals find expression in the Torah and mitzvot.
Jewish life has been hit from different directions by the cataclysmic effect of COVID-19. But it also offers opportunities to renew Jewish life and practice in this age of globalization and social media. Individuals and organizations that take advantage of these new realities can renew and energize a committed and socially conscious Judaism. Nothing less than the future and unity of the Jewish people are at stake.
The writer is professor of medicine, director of the Medical School for International Health and Medicine, and director of the Jakobovits Center for Jewish Medical Ethics in the Faculty of Health Sciences, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. The views expressed are his alone.