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Forging the Future of Worship

At the end of last month, an opinion writer for the New York Times, wrote on “Why Churches Should Drop their Online Services.” Thankfully, Tish Harrison Warren, a priest in the Anglican Church in North America, wasn’t speaking for synagogues, though her opinion caught the attention of a few observing Jews. Warren’s conclusions might work for her or perhaps they’re a deep hope she hangs onto, but as anyone can surmise, in business, education, and religion, a hybrid model is here to stay. At Beth Israel, online services have held us together and enabled us to engage even when we returned to in-person worship.

In her essay, Warren repeated the word “embodiment,” which revealed a clue to her thesis. Though she didn’t quote her Bible (Matthew 22:37), it’s the book of Deuteronomy she alludes to when she writes, “We seek to worship wholly —- with heart, soul, mind and strength — and embodiment is an irreducible part of that wholeness.” In Deuteronomy 6ff, we have learned, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” These words are the continuation of the verse in Deuteronomy 6:4, which, for Jews, defines God’s unity, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” Commentaries refer to this text as a commandment (mitzvah) for individuals to bear witness to God with their complete effort but not necessarily their whole body, especially if it can’t be fully engaged. Further, that the Hebrew text didn’t foresee a Christian one, doesn’t make her point clearer.

Warren adds that despite the recommendations of the C.D.C. and other Federal guidelines, “There is still risk, of course, but the goal was never — and ought never be — to eliminate all risk of illness and death.” Why not? If I had my preference, I would prefer a system that could eliminate all risk of illness and death, but barring that, I will accept any system that provides every means to avoid illness and most certainly death. What theology is she peddling that accepts as consistent with God’s will that illness and death are not something we should avoid at all costs? The answer lies precisely in her theology, which sees God’s will not only in the privilege of life but also, in her Christian view, the privilege of death. For in death comes the Kingdom of Heaven. In Judaism, when we die, we grieve for obvious reasons to us, and because we lose the privilege to do a commandment (mitzvah) and to live in covenant with God, in the “here and now.”

During the period of the Black Death (14th c), without science, vaccines, and masks, the church prevailed as the only means for help. God’s will was credited for the reason that some lived and some died. Priests were especially willing to die for the sake of God, and to teach others that death would come to those who were destined to die. It’s sad to think that that’s all they had to address the scourge of the Black Death, but it’s worse to think that any part of that medieval theology might be present or even alluded to, today.

In one more Biblical reference, she alludes to the Golden Rule, “Love your neighbor as yourself, says the Lord.” It first appeared in the Hebrew Bible, in Leviticus 19:18. Part of the Holiness Code, “love” was integral to a sacred community but never at the expense of the health of that community. Further in Leviticus, a Priestly book, are instructions for safeguarding the community against contagions long before the world knew about contagions and how to prevent them. But even in ancient times, the High Priest separated the contagious person, the “metzorah,” from the community to prevent its spread. No one then or now could read that text and conclude that being in-person during a pandemic was the correct reading of Leviticus 19:18, or Matthew 22:39, where it appears later in the Christian bible.

Though I disagree with the writer’s use of Biblical references in this context, and their application in today’s pandemic world, I laud her passion to live by her texts in a world where we can be in-person. However, she should note that the world has changed, and, in many ways, it is not going back. Just as medieval views were edited by the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, without jeopardizing the best of our holy books, we must accept that technology is here and has transformed permanently how we engage with each other, physically and spiritually.

The worst of it is that many houses of worship didn’t begin to integrate technology before it became ubiquitous during the pandemic, even among the elderly who were once slowest to adapt and now depend on it more than ever. Now these houses of worship are either being left behind for lack of funds to purchase equipment for online services, or they’re lagging and losing constituents who are finding their way elsewhere online, even across town or across the country. At best are those houses of worship that are embracing hybrid models and seeing, not an end to what was, but a beginning to what will necessarily be.

There is no substitute for in-person experiences where friends and newcomers greet and mingle, touch hands, embrace openly, and communicate in real time without unmuting first. But for those who are homebound, have underlying conditions, or are otherwise unable to attend in-person, technology for online experiences is a boon to their health, their well-being, and their spiritual lives.

Case in point: Congregation Beth Israel welcomes participants to worship from across the country. We have participants at Torah study and other programs who regularly join us from other cities. They’re so familiar to us, we wouldn’t know they aren’t in Houston, except we never see them in-person. We’ve become friends and they regard us as their rabbis and their congregation. In one instance, a marvelous woman out-of-state joined the congregation, attends services, Torah study, and even serves on a committee. She does it all online without any hesitation about physical presence or in-person attendance. I regard her as a Temple member with full privileges, even leading an online program from her home. I also miss seeing her when she’s not available online.

The Anglican Priest may lament the lack of full embodiment through in-person worship, but if she labors on the point without asking, “Where are the people? What are they doing?” she will miss a vital opportunity to do as the rabbis long ago did when their communities, after the destruction of the Temple, were dispersed beyond the epicenter of Jewish life. The rabbis of the Talmud said, “Go and see what the people are doing, and act accordingly” (Berachot 45a). In such times, the Jewish way was determined by the people’s practice and not by the religious authorities. Our Sages also taught, “Eilu va’eilu,” These and those, which is to say, “Both are the words of the living God.” There is a place for both in-person and online experiences. They both engage us spiritually and personally, and nobody is untouched by the privilege to do a mitzvah that commands us “You shall love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself, says the Lord.”

About the Author
Rabbi Lyon is Senior Rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel, Houston, Texas. Lyon can be heard on iHeartRadio's Podcast "Heart to Heart w/Rabbi David Lyon" on Sunny99.com. He is the author of the book "God of Me: Imagining God Throughout Your Lifetime" (Jewish Lights 2011), available at Amazon.com. He is a V.P. of the CCAR (Central Conference of America Rabbis) Board of Trustees. In Houston, Lyon serves as Board member of the United Way of Greater Houston; Advisory Board member of Holocaust Museum Houston; Board Member of Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston; and member ADL's Coalition for Mutual Respect.
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