Fifteen weeks ago our Shul shut its doors. It was a moment that, as a Rabbi, I could never have dreamed of – to actively prevent people from entering our halls, not just for prayer but for anything, was contrary to our very existence. As difficult as it was at the time, it was undoubtedly the correct decision – whilst we have had to watch COVID-19 tear through the heart of our community, we also know that lives were saved by staying home and we are proud of the small part we played in that.
While lockdown has presented many challenges for Shuls, I have felt that it also gave us an opportunity to shift our focus in a way that we have probably needed to do for a long time. Over a hundred years at least. Consider these words from Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, written sometime in the mid-nineteenth century, with at least as much relevance today.
If I had the power I would provisionally close all synagogues for a hundred years. Do not tremble at the thought of it, Jewish heart. What would happen? Jews and Jewesses without synagogues, desiring to remain such, would be forced to concentrate on a Jewish life and a Jewish Home. The Jewish officials connected with the synagogue would have to look to the only opportunity now open to them – to teach young and old how to live a Jewish life and how to build a Jewish home. All synagogues closed by Jewish hands would constitute the strongest protest against the abandonment of the Torah in home and life.
The renewal of Jewish life in the Jewish home has been a hallmark of the past few months. Shifting the centre of our religious focus to our homes has had huge ramifications but it is worth considering how positive that has been in some senses. We have seen it enable parents to engage with their own children in Torah ideas in a way they were never able to before. It has nullified the inevitable imbalance that minyan-focus gives rise to and allowed those who perhaps didn’t grow up with the benefit of being able to lead a service to shine. It has created opportunities for women’s tefilla that Shul does not (and, in some cases, cannot) allow for.
Personally I have found that even the prayer itself has been enhanced in some ways. While I miss the singing and so much else that communal tefilla has to offer, davening at home has also meant that I dictate the pace. I can daven at the speed that suits me, focusing on the words without worrying about everyone else around. Although most of the time I have been joined by a group on Zoom I still have not felt the same pressure that comes from formally davening with a minyan. When I have given shiurim on prayer in the past, I have been asked the age-old question of whether it is better to pray with a minyan with less kavvana (intention/sincerity) or at home, alone, with greater kavvana and I have begun to appreciate the question much more. (On a side note, I highly recommend Seth Kaddish’s fantastic book on the subject – Kavvana: Directing the Heart in Jewish Prayer – which I have been re-reading during lockdown)
All these and more are reasons why we may be asking ourselves: why go back? If community is flourishing, Jewish life vibrant and Torah learning thriving, why not just continue for the moment without a Shul building? Should we not take the courageous step of implementing Rav Hirsch’s view and “teach young and old how to live a Jewish life and how to build a Jewish home”? To be clear: these questions only begin in a time and in a way that is deemed safe and legal. But as we get closer to being able to restart Shul services in a cautious and careful way, the question is: should we even want to?
For me, the answer is simple. Our tradition extols the virtue of praying together with a minyan, linking it to many benefits including longevity and redemption as well as noting that the prayers of a community can carry even those among them who are less deserving. While to us it may feel like we prefer to daven alone, it is essential for us to appreciate the hidden power of communal prayer. One of the pillars on which the world stands is prayer and it is also the pillar on which a community must stand. Essential as Torah and gemilut chassadim (kindness) are to our communities, without our third foundation we will begin to fall.
That we cannot fully appreciate the underlying forces at work in this world is not something new. In Parshat Chukat, we are introduced to the concept of a “chok” – a law that we do not seem to understand but that we heed because of our trust in the Almighty. But the concept of a chok goes beyond the purification powers of a red cow – it is a recognition that there are forces at work in this world that we don’t fully grasp. The most brilliant of rational minds can only take us so far – beneath the surface of the world there is still so much that we have yet to uncover.
The importance of coming together in prayer is, in part, one of these instances. While we can see and explain the beauty of a harmonic, melodious service and appreciate that joining forces helps us accomplish more, it is still difficult for us to sense the full spiritual energy of a minyan. As we put into place all the necessary measures and precautions to ensure that we will return safely, we open the door to a force that is difficult to measure. When we add into the equation the parts of our prayers that we will now be able to include, Kaddish, kedusha, keriyat haTorah (‘leining’) and more, the inestimable force of this renewed, communal engine room is something I will run to be part of.