Now that Covid-19 has imposed social distancing on us, many establishments that rely on physical attendance have a problem. Among them are shuls. According to a story on Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), “The pandemic’s first High Holiday season has synagogues wondering: Will people pay dues?” This is a very good question, and it remains to see how Jewish establishments such as synagogues and JCCs will cope with the absence of income from participants who come to attend services and activities.
But to me, the more interesting point is the message behind the prohibition to congregate. I think that any Jew who believes in God should ask, “What is God trying to tell us by not letting us congregate on the holiest day of the year? When have Jews not been able to congregate on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement)? Probably only during the Holocaust and under totalitarian or antisemitic regimes. Does He not want our prayers? How can we atone for our sins if we can’t congregate for the Yom Kippur services?”
In my view, there is indeed a message here. We are unworthy of servicing God because we are untrue to the fundamental tenet of our Torah: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If only those who can afford the hefty entry fees may pray to God inside the shul, and if only those who pray by “our prayer book” are allowed to join the service, and the rest are told to find their own kind, then we are an example of sinaat hinam (unfounded hatred), the very cause of our exile and dispersion. If we hate our brethren, we do not deserve to congregate.
I think that this year is very special. This year, we truly have an opportunity to contemplate our Jewishness, to reflect on what it means to be a Jew, on why we were told to be “a light unto nations” and what this means. And I think we should start from the basics, from unity and mutual responsibility. Before we learn to recite from the prayer book, let’s learn to pray for one another, let’s be a role model of unity rather than an example of division.
Today is a time of tectonic changes. Judaism, too, will have to change. Unless we return to our core values of love of others and mutual responsibility, Judaism as we know it will vanish.