Recently there have been a series of articles in the New York Times and the web discussing a return to in synagogue (or church) only services. Many of these articles stressed the connections created and felt during physical services, and the lack or lessening of these feelings online. I was challenged to think after reading these articles, especially as I disagreed with many of their sentiments, and still believe that they challenge my focus on inclusivity as a positive Jewish value.
There are, of course, many benefits to in-person services. They are the most traditional way to observe Shabbat and festivals, as Jews come together to comprise a minyan for worship and community, while Zoom (and other online modalities) can be seen as a break from traditional Shabbat rules. We all miss the hugs, and impromptu conversations following services, along with communal meals. The screens, cameras and microphones can also be distracting, creating difficulties for daveners (prayer leaders) as they aim for kavanah (praying with intensity).
Despite these challenges I believe that there is a strong strand in our Torah and tradition pointing us to radical inclusivity. Within our traditional stories, Judaism began as a religion of a single extended family and slowly grew (especially as we slaved in Egypt) to be the religion of a people. During the desert experience priests (Kohanim) were appointed, and these came to dominate religious life for the next thousand years. Their power was focused primarily in the Temple in Jerusalem, where they served as the sole intermediaries before God. Only they could offer the sacrifices. Yet, even in the desert a different model is hinted at. We are told in the book of Exodus, “You (all of you) shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.” Later in Deuteronomy we are reminded that every Israelite stood at Sinai for the moment of revelation. Each one of us was addressed directly by God. These present a much more inclusive vision for Judaism, where each person is a priest, and no intermediator is necessary. It is also notable that while the tabernacle was useful as a focus for God’s presence, God was equally present on mountain tops and even in bushes (burning or not) along the path.
This radical model of inclusion also characterizes Rabbinic Judaism from its formative period 2000 years ago. Before the destruction of the Jerusalem in 70 CE, Second Temple Judaism was not inclusive. Religion was largely controlled by a hereditary priesthood, with worship limited to the Temple where animal sacrifices were offered solely by the priests. After the destruction our ancient rabbis radically reformed Judaism, allowing it to survive to our day. Their mode of reform was radically inclusive. The Temple was replaced with synagogues, homes and house of study. These could be anywhere, and each could be a locus to find God’s presence. The hereditary priests were replaced by rabbis. Yet while rabbis are important as teachers and facilitators, they are not intermediaries. Prayer replaced animal sacrifice, and anyone can find God in their meditations and prayers. Indeed, any adult can lead prayers for the community and read from the Torah. When we wear our tallitot, in effect vestments, each of us is a priest before God. Our rabbis made these changes, rooted in tradition, to ensure not only that Judaism would survive, but that it would continue to be relevant and meaningful. I would contend that the moves towards egalitarianism in the twentieth century were part of this ongoing process of radical inclusivity.
It is now necessary that we hear the voice of radical inclusivity as we continue to shape Judaism in the post-COVID world. Yes, of course, we want to return to in-person services where we can comfortably worship, hug and share meals. This feels traditional, and such a return will allow many of use to pray and connect in very meaningful ways. Yet we must also remember that these inclusive services we now enjoy were once revolutionary. During our COVID experiments with Zoom we have reopened worship for the homebound, ill and institutionalized, and we have also reconnected with Jews beyond our local communities (some, former members, and others, Jews with no access to a local synagogue community). In the past (through no fault) they were effectively excluded from our synagogues. Today, we know, however, that we can serve them, and invite them home. It has been argued that there are other days to connect yet are we willing to deprive members of the meaningful Shabbat experience, we ourselves share. Like it or not Shabbat has become the center of regular Jewish observance, echoing Achad Ha’am, “more than Israel has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept Israel.” Inclusivity demands that we remember the housebound, for indeed during COVID all of us were housebound. Let’s be sure that everyone is welcome, both those who can physically be with us on Shabbat, and those who cannot physically be with us.