I remember the penetrating power and mystery of the moment. As a teenager touring Israel for the first time, I attended Shabbat morning services with my group in a Jerusalem synagogue. During the repetition of the Amidah prayer, several kohanim (descendants of Aaron and the ancient priestly class) stood before the congregation draped in their large tallitot over their heads. Their arms stretched forward toward the congregation with their fingers configured in the 2-2-1 pattern that Leonard Nimoy popularized in his portrayal of Mr. Spock on “Star Trek.” The kohanim waved their arms in sync as they chanted the priestly blessing found in the Torah (Numbers 6: 24-26), one Hebrew word at a time: “May God bless you and keep you. May God shine favor upon you and be gracious unto you. May God show you kindness and grant you peace.” The experience evoked in me a visceral sense of awe and wonder.
More than 30 years later, I experienced awe and wonder once again, this time upon my first time receiving Birkat Kohanim (the priestly blessing) via Zoom.
With the overwhelming majority of the world’s Jewish population under some sort of home lockdown order as we and our neighbors confront the frightening COVID-19 plague, Jewish communal life has migrated to online platforms. Zoom has been one of the most popular platform providers for everything from seders to synagogue services as well as classes, concerts and social hangouts. I noted previously my sense of the necessity of online gatherings because we need community now more than ever to sustain us in this challenging time.
In recent weeks, I have become particularly fascinated by online worship as a substitute for live gatherings in synagogue and wonder how synagogue worship might change once we are able to return. In many respects I miss being in shul. I miss the energy of communal singing, particularly the beautiful melodies of Hallel (Psalms of Praise), that we sing throughout Passover. Torah reading is mainly performed chanting from a Chumash (bound volume of the Torah) rather than the dramatic effect of chanting from a hand-written Torah scroll in synagogue. I hope that when we return to shul we will be more appreciative and intentional when we engage in such rituals.
In the meantime, we are making do with online services. I have come to accept it as sort of a “new normal,” at least for the time being. I have enjoyed the opportunity to “shul-hop” and participate in services throughout the country. Different congregations do different things, but there are also broad commonalities. Not too much surprises me. And yet, I was absolutely riveted on the opening days of Passover when I witnessed Birkat Kohanim over Zoom.
I must admit to some ambivalence over the years towards the ritual of dukhening (the “Hebrish” gerund that commonly refers to the kohanim blessing the congregation from the dukhan, the platform in the front). As a young man I was very taken by the grandeur of the ritual that sparked in me a visceral, irrational sense that the kohanim were in fact channeling divine energy.
As I got older though, I was less enamored with dukhening. I struggled with the exclusion of women from the ritual. Furthermore, I struggled with class hierarchies in general. As congregations throughout the Conservative Movement, my spiritual home, have by now almost completely embraced equality of men and women in ritual life, many communities still struggle to figure out what to do with the special honors traditionally reserved for Kohanim and Leviim (descendants of Levites). For some, the principle of egalitarianism calls on them to allow daughters of Kohanim and Leviim to receive the same honors as male Kohanim and Leviim, such as blessing the Torah first and second, respectively. For others, true egalitarianism eliminates hierarchy and birth-defined privilege; they argue we should do away with the special honors altogether. For me, a humble Israelite, I fall somewhere in between.
The practice of dukhening is very rare in Conservative synagogues. There are practical reasons for this, as the farther one is from Jerusalem, the less one sees dukhening in any shul. In synagogues in Jerusalem, it is done every morning. In the rest of Israel, it is done every Shabbat and on major festivals (Pesah, Shavuot, Sukkot, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur). Ashkenazy communities outside of Israel tend to do dukhening only on the major holidays. Furthermore, the ritual requires a certain amount of logistics and coordination. The Leviim wash the hands of the Kohanim. The hazzan prompts the Kohanim in the blessing. The Kohanim chant together. Many communities lack the knowledge base as well as substantial numbers of Kohanim and Leviim to make the ritual meaningful. I once attended a service on a festival and witnessed dukhening in which the participants were not appropriately prepared. It was a spiritual dud.
Cultural sensibilities are also influential. Someone might visit Israel, be inspired by dukhening, and come back to their shul in North America and ask the rabbi to institute it. The rabbi then discusses its implementation with the ritual committee at which an irate congregant might fulminate about a certain Kohen in the congregation: “That schmuck did not visit me when I was sitting shiva. No way is he going to get up and bless me!” I suspect that members of Orthodox congregations, where dukhening is more prevalent, compartmentalize such personal slights more easily when it comes to dukhening. In Conservative congregations, it’s a harder sell.
So, it’s rare to find a Conservative shul that does dukhening on the festivals. I never would have imagined a Conservative shul performing this ritual over Zoom. And yet, there it was. And the funny thing—it worked! I applaud the rabbi’s creativity and imagination in envisioning this ritual’s transfer from terra firma to the web. Moreover, I was impressed by the preparedness of the kohanim, thanks in part to the rabbi’s direction. With “social distancing” in place, it was impossible for the kohanim to have their hands washed by the Leviim. The rabbi instructed them to do the ritual washing on their own (which would happen in a live service at which Kohanim were present but not Leviim). It all happened seamlessly. The hazzan prompted the Kohanim on each word of the blessing. With the audio limitations of Zoom, they could not be perfectly in sync, but with the hazzan’s deliberate pacing each word reverberated with meaning. At that moment, I had forgotten that I was praying with a congregation in a city hundreds of miles away from me. This priestly blessing transcended space and time, just as it was meant to do.
Our return to synagogues and the world in general remains unknown. Many of us are entering our second month isolated in our homes with the threat of the COVID-19 plague lurking in our communities. Many of us have dear ones who have been sick and even died from the virus. All of us are wracked with fear and uncertainty about what lies ahead for our world. Rituals, such as communal prayer, help us maintain order and purpose, and online services have been a spiritual lifeline for so many. In a Zoom minyan on Passover, the simple words of the priestly blessing conveyed in beautiful pageantry reminded me of our community’s yearning for graciousness, kindness and peace. We need the priestly blessing now more than ever.