We're zooming in to Jewish services, but somehow tuning out

The use of virtual means to conduct religious services, even where Halacha does not permit it, is a cause for real concern.

FILE PHOTO: A student takes classes online with his companions using the Zoom app at home (photo credit: REUTERS)
FILE PHOTO: A student takes classes online with his companions using the Zoom app at home
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Electrical energy is fascinating. We can feel it sometimes even if we cannot see it flow. In the grid, energy providers are paid for what they provide, and users pay for their consumption, but the two do not necessarily interact.
Life often works that way, too, in the “grid” of goodness and kindness. In fact, Rambam teaches that one of the highest forms of benevolence is achieved when the giver and recipient do not know one another. When performed anonymously, only the kindness exists as just that: pure kindness.
Despite all the recent inventions and innovations, electricity still requires actual close contact for the current to flow. We cannot email it, for example. Thus, power lines abound. But once that connection does exists, anything is possible. A dead vehicle roaring back to life with just a small jump-start or power restored after a blackout, remind us to truly appreciate such important connections when we lose them, and suddenly learn that without them little is possible.
No one foresaw nor wished that the whole world would be plunged into the current coronavirus pandemic, and social distancing requirements have sharply reduced the normal everyday interactions that are so important in Jewish life. One social commentator recently wondered about the toll from isolation, anxiety and depression, especially among the elderly, compared with the toll from the actual coronavirus. The underlying numbers are serious.
Loneliness is a very un-Jewish state. Wherever a Jew is, God is with them, yet communal engagement and support are crucial. Great effort is exerted throughout Jewish practice and ritual to ensure that people are drawn together and are less alone, especially at times when they might be more vulnerable. If loneliness can erode life emotionally or even physically, separation can surely do so spiritually.
Hearing the clarion call of the shofar in person, while assembled with others, as Jews have for millennia, is a crucial aspect of our tradition. Halacha (Jewish law) even requires that one hears the actual sound of the shofar itself, not merely an echo of it, so that it may pierce the crust of our soul purely and directly, permeating it without even the minutest disruption. It is this direct connection that impacts us and makes the experience real. Once that direct connection is lost, many may not return to it so quickly or, sadly, even seek it out once again in its truest form.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of sacred memory, set an example about Jewish life and technology. While passionately railing against the spiritual dangers of television and cable, for example, he nevertheless found an appropriate way to use it to share a great spiritual message with the masses on an ongoing basis. This appreciation for technology, on weekdays, and its importance within contemporary Jewish life, is real. Today, along with my family and thousands of our colleagues around the world, I deeply appreciate and vigorously engage in appropriate use of technology for the purpose of connecting people to Jewish life.
But even as the Rebbe clearly encouraged use of media for sacred purposes, he would never allow any broadcast or recording on Shabbat or festivals, or at any time clearly not permitted according to Halacha, no matter how great the opportunity. The example he set was clear.
The incredible phenomena of Zoom and similar applications have enabled millions, perhaps billions, to better weather the current pandemic without total isolation and, indeed, to easily connect and remain involved on many levels. But, increasingly, the use of virtual means to conduct religious services, even where Halacha does not permit it, is a cause for real concern. It is a short-term solution that might very well present a longer-term existential challenge to Jewish communal life as we know it. It provides a sense of involvement that ultimately might actually increase isolation.
I AM ANXIOUS about the looming Jewish High Holy Days, and a possible paradigm shift in synagogue life, with many fewer people in actual attendance. What will they do this year? The call of the shofar is a very important and powerful kick-start to the months ahead. We should not encourage those who would merely “phone it in.” Instead, we should pursue safe ways to enable them to attend a real service, or at least an actual shofar-blowing, in person.
Accommodation, when halachically permissible, is very important. Compromise is trickier. While the intended result of the compromise may or may not be realized, either way, the compromise can all too easily become the new standard. And too often, compromises, however well-intentioned, do not result in the expected solution but rather create a new standard upon which one bases further compromises. A cursory review of recent decades in Jewish communal life provides a variety of examples and many regrettable results. Retraction has proved all but impossible.
We must expend extra effort to ensure that they, too, can hear the shofar in its pure form, without risking the integrity and well-being of our traditional standards and communal structure.
The important muscles of Jewish tradition, strengthened by comity, presence and unity, and that have formed the core of our resilient community life for ages, must not be allowed to atrophy.
Many large annual events occurred online this season, enabling critical networking to continue, even if in a modified or truncated state. A good number of organizations even reported vastly expanded participation this year at virtual conventions, dinners, celebrations and the like. At the same time, no one can deny the discernible loss in quality of experience at these virtual events, creative though they might have been.
Back to the example of energy and electricity. To really appreciate the spiritual power of prayer and practice in Jewish life, like so many other special experiences, we ultimately need to be “in the room.” Otherwise, the connection wanes and might be lost. What we might then resume afterward, if the rules and standards have changed in the interim, would be something very different. Going back to a standard that is less convenient is quite difficult, if not impossible.
So let us deal carefully with the dilemma we now face. We must be compassionate, and exert ourselves to reach out to as many Jews as we can while remaining aware of the consequences of relaxing the standards themselves to a point from which they may never return. No matter how tempted we may be, this is the course to follow in order to ensure that what we return to after the crisis ends remains as strong as before.
People spend large amounts of money all the time to buy the best tickets to performances, dinners or sporting events, or travel great distances to be somewhere for important milestones and occasions, even when the same event can be viewed otherwise with less expense and bother. For good reason: Physically being “in the room” or arena creates that powerful third dimension that provides a sense of depth and reality. 
It also allows one to really experience the mood and response to what is occurring, a key component of being there. That is where our focus should be for Rosh Hashanah, even if it requires quicker, multiple services and expanded resources to keep everyone safe. We need to ensure not only physical safety but spiritual safety, now and for the longer term.
May the Almighty grant us the opportunity to return to our full lives as we knew them, with the sound of the Great Shofar heard by us all, not virtually, but directly, and very soon.
The writer is the executive vice president of American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad) in Washington, DC. His upcoming book, Capital Sparks, will be released in early 2021.