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A Message from Rabbi Steven Schwartzman

Rabbi Schwarzman

Judaism is an organic tradition. It goes back thousands of years, and it has continued to grow organically and evolve ever since. We are committed to this organically developing tradition as Conservative Jews, and this is what distinguishes us from our friends in the Orthodox and Reform movements, respectively, who see the tradition as either unchanging or as not binding. 

And so, when the pandemic struck the world, these different approaches translated into different responses. In our movement, while a few synagogues in the US were already livestreaming their Shabbat and holiday services, most were not, and none, to my knowledge, were in Canada. The Rabbinical Assembly's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which deliberates questions of halakhah and publishes opinions that Conservative rabbis can use in deciding what is appropriate for their synagogue, began addressing videotaping in synagogues back in 1982, and voted unanimously to forbid it. The question came up again in 1984, and the vote was split. In 2012, a 79-page opinion (with 21 pages of notes!) was issued on the use of electricity and electronics on Shabbat. The overwhelming majority voted that use of smartphones and computers on Shabbat is forbidden. 

In late May this year, one of my colleagues published a 34-page opinion (endorsed by a large majority, though with three dissenting opinions also published) whose purpose, during the singularly challenging conditions of the pandemic, was to find ways to mitigate the halakhic damage of using the ternet for synagogue services. Even before this teshuvah was published, we had already moved to Zoom for weekday services. My approach to the halakhic issues was that a Zoom minyan is not the same as an in-person minyan. Hence, we do not read Torah over Zoom, or repeat the Amidah, or say other prayers that require ten Jewish adults to be present in the same location. I did find textual support in our sources to allow Mourner's Kaddish to be recited over Zoom, and that is what we have been doing. As it happens, our weekday minyans over Zoom have been a phenomenal success. If memory serves, in the more than four months that we have been doing them, we have made minyan with ten Jewish adults in every single occasion except twice. If you haven't joined us for weekday services on Zoom, give it a try. Join the regulars and the new people who find Zoom a great way to connect with God, and of course with their friends at Beth Shalom. 

The issues for Shabbat and Yom Tov (holidays) are different and far more complex than weekday services, and our identity as a Conservative synagogue means that we take these issues seriously. Zoom is great for weekday minyans, where we all and hearsee each other. For Shabbat and holidays, we will use livestreaming, which is like a broadcast of the service from the synagogue that you can see and hear on the Internet. Those who can't attend in person will be able to see and hear the complete service, and in respect for Shabbat and Yom Tov, it will be possible to connect to the web page before Shabbat or Yom Tov start, and simply watch and listen and pray with us once the service begins. Not the same as Zoom, but Shabbat is not like a weekday. 

Our services, as always, will be home-grown, and starting this year, led entirely by the people of Beth Shalom. This is one of our strengths as a synagogue. Even on the holidays, and perhaps especially on the holidays, we gather as a community to pray. It's not a performance, and if bigger shuls have better productions, that's okay. We hope that the technology works well, and we hope that, for those who need to use it, it will offer a window into our sanctuary so that everyone feels a part of the service and of Beth Shalom. And, of course, we pray for a speedy end to the pandemic.

As Conservative Jews, we take Jewish law seriously and apply it to changing situations. Six months ago, none of us imagined livestreaming our service. Having studied the issue, I think we have what promises to be a good solution that is also authentic in halakhic terms. Putting into place technological solutions - first Zoom for weekdays, and soon livestreaming for Shabbat and holidays - is a way for us to continue to gather for prayer as a community even when we can't all be in the same room. And putting these solutions into place with adherence to and respect for halakhah is a reflection of who we are as Conservative Jews. Our tradition is both binding and organic, and that is its beauty.

Rabbi Steven Schwarzman



Sat, 8 August 2020 18 Av 5780