Guiding Principles of Jewish Law and Tradition and their Application to Our Situation

Sharing Shabbat

It has been my sacred privilege and responsibility to serve Congregation Shomrei Emunah as its Rabbi for almost 11 years. I have always taken on my role as the community’s authority on Jewish Law and as its spiritual leader with a sense of reverence.

The present crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic has placed extraordinary strain on all of us as individuals and families and on our entire world, our society and our synagogue. I am thankful for all of our community members for their extra efforts in helping the Shomrei community meet this challenge. And I am aware that I bear a heavy responsibility in making decisions on behalf of our community that will guide our policies and actions in accordance with my best understanding of what the Torah – Jewish Law and Tradition – demand, permit or forbid. 

Mitzvot and Values -

There are a few overarching principles and mitzvot – sacred commandments – that must always be borne in mind to direct us during our present situation. These principles and mitzvot are not arbitrary rules. They seek to convey and protect the importance and sanctity of certain values, as we are called to apply them in our world:

The primary mitzvah is to do everything possible to preserve and save human life and to refrain from endangering human life in any way – piku`ach nefesh. There is a rich and profound Jewish history of our fidelity to this value.

It is also a mitzvah to protect one’s health and well-being. This is connected with the value of human dignity – k’vod hab’ri’ot. Every person is created in God Image. That Image must not only be protected from erasure – death – but must also be treated with care, respect, compassion and love. One is prohibited from knowingly disregarding the health and safety of one’s self or others.

Another important mitzvah is the prohibition against leading people to commit a sin. It is a sin to endanger life – one’s own life and the life of others. Therefore, it is a sacred responsibility on any individual or institution to refrain from actions and policies that might lead someone to risk their own life or the life of others.

A value that serves as the very basis of Jewish community and peoplehood is the declaration: “All Israel are connected and responsible for one another – kol Yisra’el `arevim zeh la-zeh.” Our connection to each other is a mixture of friendship and family bonds, national identity and a shared sense of history, destiny and mission. Every gathering at Shomrei is an expression of all these aspects of community. When we gather in that spirit we become a kehillah k’doshah – a holy community.

Putting these Mitzvot and Values into Practice –  

In light of these supremely important values, we continue to monitor how to save lives and also how to continue to be a Jewish community, dedicated to Jewish traditions and to each other. How do we maintain connection? How do we help each other in this difficult time of deprivation? How do we engage in our Jewish rituals, prayers, celebrations and rites of mourning as we maintain physical distancing from one another?

Our community members have responded beautifully to these challenges. I am moved by the caring and the devotion poured into the hard work that continues to be done to keep each individual and our Shomrei community as a whole sustained – physically, materially, socially, emotionally and spiritually.

How can we work in the ritual realm while keeping in mind certain values from our Jewish tradition?

Minyan – The familiar concept of a minyan needs to be understood in terms of both definition and purpose. A minyan consists of ten Jewish adults who physically gather together in one space for a sacred purpose, such a prayer. Of course, prayer is central to Jewish life. It is meant to be central to the life of each individual Jew in their own private life. But gathering in a minyan creates a powerful added dimension of community. Only a group constituted as a minyan is permitted to engage in certain prayers and ceremonies, for they function as prayers and ceremonies of the community. Without a minyan those elements of a service are not enacted. This includes the Torah reading service and the recitation of the barkhu, the kedushah and the kaddish as an integral element of the prayer service. (This is separate from the Mourner’s Kaddish, about which see below.)

Despite the wonders of technology, a “zoom” minyan is not a minyan, for there is no substitute for the physical presence of 10 people in the same physical space. I believe that this is a crucial lesson for us. We sorely miss personal contact with other. The definition of minyan is not to be seen as an imposed limitation on our behavior. Rather, it is a truthful message regarding the irreplaceable value of real human interaction.

Without a minyan there is no possibility of reciting the prayers mentioned above, for they incorporate the calling out of God’s Name as an expression of the sacred power of human community.  To do so without a minyan would be to ignore this message and it also would be a violation of the prohibition against “taking God’s Name in vain.” On the other hand, the Mourner’s Kaddish does not include mention of God’s Name. Therefore, although it is ordinarily dependent on the presence of a minyan (- it is a communal prayer), in our extraordinary circumstances it is permitted to have the Mourner’s Kaddish recited as a means of bringing comfort to the bereaved. That is our practice at the present time. (At the start of our shut-down I circulated a prayer that couches the Mourner’s Kaddish within this context.)

Another constraint that we must accept is produced by our fundamental obligation to honor Shabbat and the holidays as sacred times. On those days we are prohibited from engaging in actions that help to build our world. The holiness of Shabbat consists, in large measure, in reminding us to embrace a humble orientation to the world around us. For six days we are called to build a world. But that worthy project must stop on Shabbat. No matter how important our work is, and no matter how much the world needs repair, we must cease from engaging in trying to materially change the world on Shabbat – just as God let go of Creation after six days of building a world. The sanctity of Shabbat calls us to relinquish our technological mastery of the world. This is a very relevant lesson to learn during this time when our entire world begins to recognize that our technological hubris has not been the solution for the world’s problems and, in fact, has served, in too many ways, as a contributing factor to those problems.

Honoring these values and hearing their message is a complicated challenge. Whatever our own personal choices are in addressing this challenge, it has always been the role of Shomrei to exemplify what a traditional observance of Shabbat and other Jewish traditions might look like. For example, we maintain a completely kosher kitchen in Shomrei’s name and do not sponsor synagogue events that compromise that standard. Similarly, we do not countenance the use of cell phones in Shomrei on Shabbat, whatever anyone’s own personal practice might be outside.

Therefore, Shomrei will not engage in interactive “zoom” services on Shabbat and holidays. Instead, we offer a live-streaming option, which is set up before Shabbat and works without Shomrei personnel having to adjust anything on Shabbat. We may lose the interactive possibility that we can enjoy fully for six days of the week. But we gain the privilege of sanctifying Shabbat as a day of humility, renewal and retrospective rest.

Our Unique Responsibility – 

A word of explanation is in order regarding comparing these decisions for Shomrei to differing decisions adopted by other synagogues, especially in the Conservative Movement. It is a long-standing reality that our Movement encompasses a great variety of thinking and practice. We do not always agree with each other. For instance, there are still some synagogues in the Movement that are not egalitarian.

There are many rabbis and teachers and voices to be heard from and learned from. In true traditional fashion, we engage in discussion and debate with each other. In the end the Movement believes in giving each congregational rabbi the absolute authority to make their own decisions about how to hold fast to the Torah and guide their community so as to live faithfully in accordance with God’s ways. This follows from the Talmud’s designation of the rabbi of each community as mara d’atra – the master of that place. This grants each rabbi sole discretion to decide religious matters for their community. This is a heavy but sacred role to fulfill.

I accept this responsibility and pray that the Blessed Holy One will aid me to serve God and this community in truth.

May God bless us all with the gifts of wisdom and discernment as we choose our path forward and may we soon enjoy the blessings of healing and continued good health.

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Rabbi David Greenstein

Rabbi David Greenstein

Rabbi David Greenstein arrived at Shomrei Emunah in August 2009 with a rich, broad and deep background as a rabbi, cantor, artist, scholar, and teacher. Being Shomrei’s rabbi, he says, allows him to draw on all of these passions, as well as his lifelong commitment to building Jewish communities.
Rabbi David Greenstein

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