The Conservative movement made waves last week, announcing that it will permit synagogues to use technology to livestream services to congregants on Shabbat and holidays. The May 13 ruling, or teshuva, will only apply to synagogues while they are closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and it includes strict guidance on operations to minimize prohibitions against the use of electronic devices on holy days.
“This ruling is a toolbox, not a blanket permission,” said Rabbi Joshua Heller, a native of Bayonne who wrote the teshuva and sits on the denomination’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. “It gives rabbis a roadmap to understand the implications of different technologies and decide which one is most appropriate for their own approach,” including the decision not to stream at all.
Heller, a ninth-generation rabbi and spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Torah in Sandy Springs, Ga., is also a graduate of the former Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union, now known as Golda Och Academy.
The teshuva primarily relies on the principles of pikuach nefesh, saving a life, and the Jewish legal category of “sha’at hadachak,” pressured time, a situation when the only option is a more lenient halachic standard or even the acceptance of a minority opinion. The language of the ruling makes clear that when synagogues re-open, or at least when communities arrive at a “new normal,” the responsum will be reassessed.
“I don’t think it as overstatement to say that this reduces the chances of outbreaks of Covid in Conservative synagogues,” Heller told NJJN in an email exchange. “It takes off some of the pressure for congregations to open up too quickly, and for people to come to services when it may not be medically advisable. I think it is an important tool for congregations to keep their communities together and support people who would otherwise be isolated.”
For some N.J. Conservative rabbis, the ruling is an after-the-fact approval of practices they’ve had in place since synagogues began shuttering in March. “The new teshuva reinforces what we are already doing,” said Rabbi Avi Friedman of Congregation Ohr Shalom-The Summit Jewish Community Center, which holds daily services, including on Shabbat, via Zoom, a videoconferencing app. “It does not change anything for us.”
The same can be said for Congregation B’nai Tikvah in North Brunswick. “We were already streaming and Zooming,” Rabbi Robert Wolkoff told NJJN in a telephone interview. “It’s really confirming what we already do.”
Rabbi Robert Tobin of B’nai Shalom in West Orange called the teshuva a “fairly restrictive interpretation of what is possible at this time.” His congregation immediately turned to Zoom for Friday night and Shabbat morning services when the closures began. “Staying involved and close is necessary for our emotional and spiritual well-being,” he told NJJN in an email.
Others, such as the leadership at Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth (HPCT-CAE), Temple Beth Ahm of Aberdeen, and Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, made the decision to forgo livestreaming on Shabbat and holidays, deeming the use of electricity and electronics incompatible with traditional observance.
“I am not persuaded by the arguments for streaming and will not allow my shul to do so,” said Rabbi Eliot Malomet of HPCT-CAE. Where some clergy see a temporary ruling for an unusual moment in time, Malomet views a slippery slope leading to people abandoning the practice of coming to synagogue and causing other harms, such as judging clergy by their on-screen charisma, feeding boredom and distractions, and diminishing the sanctity of Shabbat and yom tov.
“Why can’t we do what Jews have done in the past when faced with extraordinary circumstances: Teach and guide Jews to take responsibility for their own religious lives?” he wrote in an email to NJJN. “Jews are hungrier, now more than ever, for something that will make demands of them. Saying to them that the only demand we have of you is to flip open your laptop … is worthy of pathos. Rather than opt for the easy solution of streaming, why can’t we do something hard and be creative?”
Some of his ideas include online master classes and small group experiences such as an expansion of the practice of a Rosh HaShanah seder (where specific foods have symbolic meanings), micro tashlich services, and live blowing of the shofar from home to home.
“Why do we have to restrict our thinking to the size of a computer screen?” Malomet wrote.
In an email to NJJN, Rabbi Lisa Malik of Temple Beth Ahm of Aberdeen wrote that the opinion violates the letter and the spirit of the law, and she worries it will cause irreparable damage, similar to the movement’s controversial teshuva decades ago that permitted driving to shul on Shabbat and yom tov. “I do not believe that the High Holidays 5781/2020 meet the criteria of ‘extenuating circumstances’ from a halachic point of view,” she wrote. “My biggest concern about Rabbi Heller’s teshuvah is that it will be misread, misused, & misapplied by lay leaders in Conservative synagogues around the world in the 2020’s (and beyond), just as the 1950 driving teshuvah by Rabbis [Morris] Adler, [Jacob] Agus, & [Theodore] Friedman has been misread, misused, & misapplied over the past 70 years.”
The teshuva deems livestreaming permissible, though only with considerable restrictions designed to minimize violations and remind users that it is an unusual and unprecedented practice. These guidelines include setting up equipment for providing and accessing streaming in advance of Shabbat and yom tov, or having it operate on a timer and for synagogues to assign a non-Jewish employee to handle technical problems. In the same vein, users at home would have to ask a non-Jew for help to repair glitches.
Heller discusses the slippery slope argument in the teshuva, giving examples like the possibility of leaving services for online shopping or gaming. He suggests that users give serious consideration to how they can avoid these temptations, such as placing a “do not disturb sign” on the computer or covering the keyboard, but acknowledges that communal efforts may also be required.
Overall, the permissiveness of the teshuva seems to have resonated with Conservative rabbis across the U.S. Before the pandemic, Heller estimated that less than 10 percent of congregations livestreamed services to housebound members. Days after the teshuva was published, Heller said, “my inbox is full of questions from rabbis who are just now implementing streaming on Shabbat, or who rushed to do it with temporary solutions, and now that they have a chance to breathe, are looking to implement something more robust that will carry them into the High Holidays.”