Harry Zeitlin
Grateful Every Day, Modeh Ani Lefanecha!

Slowly With All Deliberate Speed

I really thought we had a chance. I really did.

Although no one would ever hope for a pandemic plague, once it’s here, we should see what positive changes it will either force or allow us to examine. The radical adjustments we’ve had to make could have facilitated some much needed change, an evolution to our Ancient Tradition which many suspect just might be stuck a couple hundred years in the past. But, as we seem to be over the worst of at least the first wave here in Israel, what I see, instead, is a rapid, almost blind, snap-back to comfortable and familiar habits of rote prayer. Perhaps a great opportunity has been wasted.

But it’s not only that we might have missed an opportunity, which might or not have actually been there. No, perhaps we closed our eyes and heart to God’s not-so-gentle push to reexamine our relationship with Him.

I’d never assert anything so blindly ethno-centric as you might hear in the frum world, asserting  everything that occurs anywhere is primarily a message from God to the Jewish People. But presuming a Creator Who is multi-task capable (certainly  a product of His omniscience) whatever He is about in our world certainly has the bandwidth to include messages for the Jewish People. I have no idea, and would never presume to say I know the Divine Intention of the CoronaVirus plague we’ve been facing, but I am certain that just like everything else that occurs in this world that effects me, I’m called upon to find and act on the very best next step(s) to take.

So, I’m confident that the disruptions that have happened to traditional Jewish Communal Life each contained questions for us both communally and individually. It was not random that, worldwide, Jews of all religious stripe and fervor were prevented from such basic observances as communal prayer, davening  with a minyan and, thus, mourners were prevented from saying Kaddish. Bikkur Cholim, visiting the sick, Lavayat HaMet, attending funerals and comforting mourners. Torah Study, Limmud Torah, itself, at least within the typical and accustomed Yeshiva/Bet Midrash system, sitting at long tables across from your chavruta, study partner, and struggling, together, to tease out ever deeper meanings and messages which have been embedded in ancient words. We were forced, for a short time at least, to adapt.

Ashreinu, How happy and blessed we all are, that we now live in a world of remote digital communication and can speak with and learn together with and, in many circles, even pray with people who are not physically present in our immediate environment. What an opportunity to explore making Torah connections over a much wider field than ever imagined possible just thirty years ago.

Although I usually deny it vociferously, and would almost never admit it to anyone else, in some very deep ways I, also, am haredi, ultra-orthodox. I pray three times a day, using an ancient, traditional liturgy. I devote vast portions of my days studying Torah. I do all of this wearing modern (or, at least, not too out-of-date and unstylish) casual clothes. I do cover my head at most times, but with a knit kippa or, if it’s windy or sunny outside, either a straw or a porkpie (obviously not standard haredi wear) hat. And while at this particular point in my life I rarely attend synagogue, I am deeply vested in not just the abstract “welfare” of the greater Jewish world, but have a personal stake (as well as strong opinions) on how we, as a people, rooted in our shared and ancient past as well as our more recent histories, but also part of the world which is always marching into the future, fulfill our halachic (formal and legalistic ritual, prayer, communal and private obligations) as well as our minhagic, carry on the religous customs which define us as a people, much more than mere folks who share a “religion”.

As I mentioned, I rarely do go to synagogue or pray with a minyan. And often when I do find myself in that situation, I’m so disengaged from what I find to be rote practice, that I’ll often sit alone and “space-out” into my own meditations of God and His relationship with me, with the Jewish People, with all mankind (as well as mine with all of them). This isn’t because I disapprove nor because I see myself as a “special case”. In fact, most times I’d love to join in, but too often it just no longer works for me.

And as the years have passed, I find that I speak with more and more Jews, committed Jews like myself and even those more committed, who also find themselves on the outside looking in. And often, I’ve suspected that all those “on the inside” are, really, just as much on the outside as I am, albeit each in their own personal ways. For so many of us who are not trying to be crusaders or reformists, but merely trying to experience and then deepen our connections with The Creator and with our fellow Jews, much of “the old way” has just creaked to a stop, and no longer works.

Since, for the last number of years, most of my davening has been solo, and almost all of my teaching and most of my chavruta (study partner) Torah study has used online video conferencing tools, I wasn’t faced with suddenly having to give up everything I’ve known about being Jewish. But I have witnessed the honest pain and frustration of many who found themselves forced to do just that. Cast adrift, many of them reached out for the lifeboat of remote and distance learning and prayer. Some, not many but still some significant religious thinkers, supported and promoted the idea of people in separate households, instead of physically joining together in each other’s homes as has been our practice for millennia, holding Pesach Seders using software such as skype, facetime and zoom, even if that involved a minimal, but definite, use of electricity on a holiday when it is normally forbidden. Even some orthodox groups (albeit those on the “progressive” end of the orthodox spectrum, found ways to permit Zoom and Skype, even when initialized on Shabbat itself on days where, merely months ago, they would automatically, almost without thought, prohibit the use of everything electrical or electronic. In other words, a number of very creative alternatives were conceived, designed, distributed and utilized in very short order when they were needed.  More important than that, many people found these ways of praying and learning to be particularly satisfying, in many cases more satisfying that their previous, traditional practices.

So, I am disappointed by the immediate snap-back to the synagogue model, unchanged from where it left off. The sense of relief and absolute deliverance I read in so many articles praising “our beloved synagogues” totally depressed me.

I get it. There are many beautiful moments in our traditional liturgy, especially in its fullest form (which requires (this is an interesting question rarely asked, what we mean by “requiring”) a minyan for many prayers and praises). It’s a great feeling to no longer worry if we’re trying to just “get by”, when many of our best teachers never brought up the possibility that this social upheaval just might have uncovered new and better paths. Many of us have, quite recently, enjoyed very special davening experiences centered in parking lots, balconies and courtyards. (Just this past Shabbat, I was a guest at a friends house in Jerusalem. He has a walled front yard that has several stone water fountains. As the sun set, the outside temperature was perfect and the gurgling water just soft enough to hear the Shliach Tzibbur clearly over it. The sense of peace and relaxation was far beyond what I’ve experienced in a shul–at the same time, I should mention that when I spend Shabbat with another friend in Tzfat, rather that goit to shul or opening a siddur, I join him and another friend who have been doing this for more than 20 years, and take a meditative walk around the edges of the city, watching the sun disappear over the peaks of Har Meron, also a reliably special way to greet the Shabbat).

My point is that there a number of ways, all consistent with halacha and not violating any Shabbat prohibitions, which include the familiar synagogue service, but also includes other possibilities. Due to the health restrictions recently in place because of he Covid-19 pandemic, we were forced, even those who otherwise would never have experimented or deviated, to explore other paths to the same goal (Shabbat, that is). Even though I am in a phase where I rarely go to shul right now, I tried new options and found that some of them worked, powerfully, others not so much.

Wouldn’t it have been wonderful (and it still can be), if a critical mass of teachers and authorities were to encourage Am Yisrael to expand our repertoire of davening techniques, ready to use them even when our old classic standard has returned. Of course, the traditional synagogue service is fine, and has many strong features which can help aborb each of us into our own, unique Shabbat experience each week, but so, perhaps, do these “newly revealed” experiments.

Thus, making a conscious choice each time we’re called upon (required or feel an inner calling) to relate to The Creator through what I like to call the Tefilla Channel, we will be called to begin with an authentic, and not merely formulaic, kavannah (inner intention, a “tuning up” of our “instrument”, as it were) to make us authentically, and not merely formulaic, prepared to daven.

Do I have an answer, a description of what our journey forward will or should look like? Of course I don’t, Baruch Hashem, because any simple prescriptive formula will be, almost by definition, wrong. There are an array of options I would like to see in place or, at least, within grasp.

Of course, I have nothing against a revival of the synagogue model which, for so many centuries provided us a context for tefilla b’tzibbur, community prayer. But I would also like to see individual or small (less than a minyan) groups also recognized and afforded the same honor and legitimacy. I would like it if our great community leaders, our gelolim in all areas of Jewish experience, in lamdut (formal learning), in devising and clarifying halacha as new needs and conditions appear, each requiring courage and originality and an acceptance that failure is part of trying, explore and then teach and write about their own experiences in these other, less-traditionally-accepted contexts.

I would like to see a celebration and not just a grudging intellectual acceptance that there are at least as many different ways to approach HaKadosh Baruch Hu as there are Neshamot and that all honest attempts and experiments, even those which lead to dead ends and other types of failure, done with the clear kavannah (intention) l’yached shem yud-heh l’vav-heh to join the sacred etherial with the material, the diving Masculine with the Feminine, the ineffable Infinite of Ein Sof with the essence of matter and Being in this world, the Holy Shechina, every honest attempt, successful or not, to attest that, indeed, Hashem Elkeinu Hashem Echad, that the inner equals the outer and that even”One and One and One is One” because The One is All, that we, Am Yisrael, the Jewish Nation, looking into the future, explore and exclaim without distraction our relationship, both as Am Yisrael and as part of humanity, with God, the Creator, Sustainer, the Source, Agent and Object of Love.

If we can come out the other side of this world tragedy of the Covid-19 pandemic, we will have processed horror and confronted the challenge, and not merely taken a break, voluntary or not, from our mere habits. We will have maximized our opportunity.

About the Author
After almost 30 years, Harry Zeitlin returned home to Jerusalem! Growing up in Denver, CO, he began Torah studies at an early age. He also had the privilege of knowing and studying with Rabbi Shloime Twerski zt"l. He graduated from Yale College (BA 1974) with an independent degree in communications, theory-and-practice, focusing on filmmaking and linguistics. Harry had a 45+ year career as a professional artist (photography, to which he is just now returning!) and has played guitar for more than 50 years, in addition to his 30+ years as an orthodox rabbi teaching Torah across the denominational spectrum. He lived in Israel from 1982 - 1989 and returned in 2016. I'M BACK! Grateful every day! Follow his spiritual adventures. He is always available to speak, teach, present a Shabbaton or other workshop. ......or to serenade your group with his guitar.
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