This year’s hotly debated question for Pesach, “to Zoom or not to Zoom?” is over, but the impact of technology on Jewish life is just beginning. The next debate on the immediate horizon will be about a Zoom Tikkun Leil Shavuot. The group of rabbis who permitted a Zoom seder distinguished holding an online Seder from using Zoom for other holidays. Eating maror and telling the story of the Exodus are Biblically mandated laws (d’ oraita) and offered compelling justifications to share a screen, while studying Torah throughout the night on Shavuot is only a custom (minhag), arguing against having a Zoom Tikkun. But other considerations suggest a broader application of virtual connections (sorry, but the ability to mute disruptive family members is not one of them).
The group of rabbis who ruled that a Zoom Seder was permissible offered five reasons for their narrow ruling:
1. Notable North African Sephardic rabbis permitted the use of electricity on Yom Tov in the recent past.
2. While being online is a workday activity, it loses its everyday character when performing a mitzvah.
3. We can trust people to use this temporary and narrow decision about Pesach as directed and not misuse it to form a more inclusive ruling of other holidays.
4. Grandparents often influence grandchildren to participate in a Seder. A Zoom seder is a way to enable grandparents to continue to motivate their grandchildren to engage with the mitzvah of Seder.
5. People who are alone are at risk for depression, especially if they have other medical or emotional conditions. Connecting with people who are isolated can prevent them from falling into a black hole of despair.
Maintaining spiritual connections with grandparents, grandchildren, and other family members with each other, carefully using technology for only holiday-related mitzvot and not trivial activities, and preventing a person from falling into an abject state of despair are potent arguments for permitting online connections going forward. While the Sephardic rabbis explicitly stated that their ruling was only for Pesach seder, rabbis may rule in one direction, and individuals may choose otherwise. As many people experience prayer, celebration, and study online, a more significant issue is emerging. What insights about technology and the Jewish community that we have gained during this time of social distancing will we take with us into a post-pandemic world?
For the past decade, my wife and I have celebrated Pesach in Yerushalayim, usually without immediate family members. This year, my brother-in-law and I led a Zoom Seder (coincidentally before Yom Tov). We hosted over eighty people, representing four generations, in a dozen states. I have not celebrated Pesach with so many family members in years! This experience created a powerful memory that makes me reconsider the use of technologies that connect me with family members and friends on Yom Tov, especially those who are alone because of age and illness. More generally, “Zoom-Overs” should be a call to Jewish leaders to prepare for the change from a 4G to a 5G connected community.
4G technology has enabled a platform-based economy, creating ride-sharing apps like Lyft and Uber. 5G technology will help to facilitate the mass introduction of autonomous vehicles. Or, to use a Pesach example, 4G technology allowed people to connect for a Zoom seder this year, while 5G technology will soon enable us to project ourselves as a hologram at someone else’s Seder table! Holographic technology is in use for performances of deceased artists and testimonies of Shoah survivors who have passed away, l’havdil. As the costs of holographic and other 3-D technologies decrease, and we move to a screenless future, the lines between a physical and digital community will become even fuzzier.
The questions about Passover this year were much more interesting than in years past, moving away from kitniyot controversies to connecting with others on Zoom. As we prepare to leave this horrific time and enter a post-pandemic future, we have an opportunity to shape the quality and accessibility of the Jewish community. We will simultaneously hunger for the physical presence of others and continue some of our virtual connections. The pandemic should put to rest arguments about the virtues of physical community versus the vices of digital community. We will have a more vibrant and accessible Jewish community if we adopt a phygital “both-and” mindset to reimagining Jewish life, and we should not wait for the next upheaval to remember that we are equal to the challenge.