Rabbi Emma Gottlieb reflects on how the COVID-19 pandemic has allowed for the reimagining of Progressive Judaism.
THE year 70 CE was catastrophic for the Jewish people. Jerusalem was under siege, Jewish blood was being spilled in barbaric ways, Jewish leaders were martyred through public torture and execution, and ultimately the Great Revolt against the Romans culminated in the destruction of the Second Temple and the burning and sacking of Jerusalem. It was a dark time indeed. In the absence of seasoned leadership and The Temple, how did Judaism survive?
Without Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, it is likely that it would not have. According to Jewish lore, R. Yochanan had the foresight to escape the siege through a clever ruse that brought him to the Roman general Vespasian. Predicting the general’s rise to Emperor, R. Yochanan was able to secure his safety, and that of his students, who were allowed to relocate with him to Yavneh, a town south of modern-day Tel Aviv. There, they established a new academy, and began the generations-long process of reimagining a decentralised form of Judaism – a Judaism that could survive, even without the Temple; a Judaism that could travel the world as Jews were forced to disperse further and further afield from the Holy Land; a Judaism that could facilitate prayer and ritual in the absence of sacrifice and that could speak to the suffering of their time.
I have often felt a kinship with this generation of radical religious reformers. They understood the urgency of the times. Their willingness to innovate granted all future generations of Jews permission to view Judaism as a living and evolving religion with timeless teachings and truths supported by practices that could change with the times, when necessary. But never have I felt as close to Rabbi Yochanan and his students as I did in 2020.
"This past year, Jews of all denominations figured out how to adjust in the face of the pandemic."
For many of us, 2020 was a disaster of a year, incomparable to anything else we have experienced in our lifetimes. In South Africa, aside from health concerns and fears around Covid-19, 2020 also placed tremendous burden on our healthcare system, and brought economic hardship for many. With community so central to Judaism, the South African Jewish community, like other global communities, was forced to re-imagine communal life and living, as well as communal worship in a time of ‘isolation’.
In the immediate shock of the practically-global lockdown in March, Jewish leaders once again grappled with the challenge of keeping the Judaism we know and love alive. How can we practice and pray if we cannot be together, since so many of our traditions require community? While it’s certainly possible to practice Judaism alone when necessary, it’s hard to imagine that a Judaism devoid of communal gatherings could survive as long as it has. In the midst of terror and uncertainty, we heard R. Yochanan calling to us across the ages with an invitation to innovate in the face of crisis. It was time to adapt once more.
This past year, Jews of all denominations figured out how to adjust in the face of the pandemic. Even within the Orthodox world, there were changes to make the best of a very difficult situation. For us in the Progressive world, who already had an ideological mechanism in place to allow us to acclimate more rapidly and thoroughly, we were able to almost completely preserve our usual practices by modifying them to fit online platforms.
Since the start of lockdown, the Progressive community in South Africa, like other global Progressive communities, took our shuls online, redefining what community can look like and what “together” can mean. We know from other historical crises that people often turn to God/faith/religion during times of profound loss and/or unusually high anxiety and uncertainty. This year was no different.
An online Shul service
According to the Jewish Community Survey of South Africa (JCSSA), which was published early in 2020 by the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies, UCT, 12% of the respondents identified as Progressive/Reform. However we quickly realised that our online shuls were not only filled with our own members. Unaffiliated Jewish South Africans, as well as those associated with other streams, sought comfort and familiarity, comfort they could not have found if we had simply closed up our buildings and tried to ride out the storm separated and isolated from one another. Instead, we brought modern technology and ancient rituals together in order to bring Judaism to the people where they were, in their homes. We figured out how to have online seders so that families could see and celebrate with each other, even across continents. We participated in Tikkun Leil Shavuot in front of our computer screens, we sang along with rabbis and cantors from all over the world who created beautiful digital content for us to access from the safety of our kitchen tables and living-room sofas. Somehow, we found ways to make this year’s High Holidays not only the most memorable, but also one of the most meaningful. And, over Chanukah we lit candles together in front of our computers, so that we could light together as a community, and with the people we love. Our relatively small Progressive Jewish community in South Africa, suddenly in the spotlight, also had the opportunity to learn with and from global Progressive communities, allowing for a cross-pollination and expansion of ideas.
Along the way we struggled with questions around changes to our most sacred practices. How could we preserve the feeling and the meaning of the rituals we love most without losing their sanctity? How could we read and hear Torah without being in the physical presence of a Torah scroll? How could we safely facilitate B’nai Mitzvah, baby-namings, funerals, and shiva prayers? How could we say Kaddish without a physical minyan? In dialogue with Jewish leaders all around the world we asked these questions and answered them through experimentation, innovation, trial and error - finding solutions, compromises, and even creating some exciting new traditions along the way (our drive-by public Shofar blowing in Cape Town, for example, is likely to remain a beloved part of Elul long after we are able to safely blow the shofar in one another’s presence once again).
Perhaps even more importantly, the Progressive community doubled down on what it means to be a community that comes together around Jewish prayer, ritual, study and lifecycle moments. We made a commitment to create virtual spaces where we could gather together in the peaks and valleys of our individual and communal calendars. Most crucially we found ways to make those spaces feel holy.
R. Yochanan and his students taught those who survived the harrowing year of 70 CE that Judaism was not limited to Jerusalem. This year we affirmed that it is also not limited to our physical buildings. A shul is not four walls and a roof. A shul is where Jews gather to learn, pray and come together in community, and this year we continued to do just that, in the spaces where we could do it safely - outdoors, distanced, and online.
Emma Gottlieb is from Toronto, Canada and is the newest member of Temple Israel’s rabbinic team in Cape Town. She received ordination from Hebrew Union College, at the New York campus in 2010 and subsequently held pulpits in small congregations in New York, Boston and Toronto. Rabbi Emma is one of the first women rabbis in South Africa.