“More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath,” Ahad Ha’am famously wrote, “the Sabbath has kept the Jews.”
For British Jews from across the spectrum of religious practice, coming together with their communities to worship on Friday nights and Saturday mornings is more than just basic to our sense of wellbeing. It’s how we mark time, how we build identity, and how we keep our faith alive. Whatever the specifics of our beliefs, we are sustained by coming together as a community.
But how do we continue to come together when we can’t physically be together? The pandemic has forced us into forms of digital gathering and worship that, for most of us, are new and awkward. The simple joys of sharing challah and wine, of a friendly chat, and of singing together are much, much harder than they used to be. Most of us have had experiences of an online bar mitzvah or funeral which was, at the same time, both technically frustrating but also deeply necessary and fulfilling.
We need our rituals now, perhaps more than ever. Thankfully, our rabbis and communities have been getting better and better at adapting the rituals of Jewish life to the conditions of the pandemic. It has been months now, and the technical glitches have been ironed out. Rabbis have learned how to run in-person services safely with appropriate safeguards and social distancing. And all of us are getting more and more comfortable with worship online, just as we are getting more comfortable with other aspects of strange socially distanced life.
How are these efforts working? Does socially distanced and online worship do the same job that traditional worship does? Does an online bar mitzvah feel like a ‘real’ bar mitzvah? And what happens to that feeling of belonging and spiritual community we get from worshipping together when we have to socially distance? What happens when we have to just watch the rabbi online, and kiddush has to take place over Zoom?
I am leading on a research project that is seeking answers to these questions. We are conducting a large-scale survey of people of all faiths across the UK about their ritual lives during the pandemic. We are also interviewing people across the country, observing all the ritual life we can, and working with religious professionals and lay people closely to put our findings into practical use.
This is a self-consciously inter-religious project. We are looking into many different sorts of British religious practice not just for the sake of it, but because different faith groups will find different ways of addressing the Covid-19 situation that we’re all facing together. No two faiths are the same, and each religion has its own rules and understandings that shape what makes a ritual authentic, meaningful and effective.
But it has been my experience that, especially in times of crisis, religious leaders of different faiths can learn more than you might think from one another. We are all facing the same fears right now: illness, uncertainty, death, and loneliness. Though each faith will address them differently, they are addressing similar needs in similar contexts. So, we want to be open to find overlaps when they do appear.
In our survey, we are asking both religious leaders and congregants to tell us about their experiences of regular weekly worship, festival celebrations, and life-cycle rituals. However often or seldom you attend synagogue, and no matter your affiliation, we want to hear from you. Visit http://bric19.mmu.ac.uk to learn more and take part.
We are living through a moment of transformation. This pandemic will shape the way our society is organised for generations to come. Jewish life is no exception. Already, we’ve found from our survey that the vast majority of clergy say that they will use some of the new techniques that they’ve learned during the pandemic once this is all over. Really, how could they not?
What we’ve learned and experienced during this difficult year will stay with us for the rest of our lives. The Sabbath has kept us through pandemics and wars and crises before, and it will keep us through this. But how it will do so, and what that will be like, is something we still need to explore.