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Kind, Not Degree

03/19/2020 06:27:59 PM


The Rabbinical Assembly, on March 17, posted a response to Covid-19 as it relates to remote or virtual minyans. 

The Rabbinical Assembly is the union for Conservative rabbis and houses the legal committee (Committee for Jewish Law and Standards) that discusses and advises rabbis on novel legal questions. Their decision was to endorse weekday minyans through Zoom or similar platforms because of sha'at hadehak which they translated as a crisis situation. It's a relatively short analysis that gives you a wonderful window into the halakhic process when rabbis are hunting for precedents that will justify a lenient decision. In my opinion, it's the wrong approach in this situation.

Our rabbis, and our movement, do an admirable job of incremental change, what we might call changes in degree. A sha'at hadehak, however, demands changes in kind, not degree. To survive crises, you don't adjust positions, you shift paradigms. The question they should have asked is: what constitutes a minyan? Instead, they basically asked if a virtual platform is kosher for kaddish. That's a bottom line/tachlis question. In a sha'at hadehak, more radical questions must be asked.

In the Talmud's discussion of how we know that a minyan consists of ten people, the verse that is ultimately settled upon labels the ten spies sent to reconnoiter the Land of Israel as an edah, a congregation (Numbers 14:27 and b. Megillah 23b). Since that's the source that illustrates a minyan, physical proximity with visual contact can't be essential. There must have been times during their forty-day assignment when they were dispersed. Their edah was composed of a group on a mission to fulfill a specific function. Prayer services and Shabbat services using a virtual platform similarly comprise a group on a mission to fulfill specific functions. Thus, during this sha'at hadehak, ten people sharing a virtual platform constitute a minyan without qualification. (The Rabbinical Assembly's permission was qualified.)

Since gathering physically is potentially dangerous, we need to shift paradigms. This is not a question of decreasing the number of transgressions one is forced to commit when in situation of pikuach nefesh, a life-or-death situation for an individual. We are in sha'at hadehak, a time of communal crisis. The normal rules of halakhic procedure must be suspended while we tend to the fundamental needs of our community. Those needs include gathering together however we can in order to engage our community in the comfort of the familiar.

Sun, June 16 2024 10 Sivan 5784