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."