Photo: Ashley Diener/Flickr
Photo: Ashley Diener/Flickr
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Shul in the Time of Coronavirus

With COVID-19 pushing synagogues to consider virtual gatherings, we should understand what it means to come together physically

by
David Zvi Kalman
March 11, 2020
Photo: Ashley Diener/Flickr
Photo: Ashley Diener/Flickr

In the early 1990s, some forgotten soul on the internet coined the term “meatspace” to refer to the offline area that most of us think of as “the real world.” The term has always been only half a joke: It’s funny to think about the real world as secondary to cyberspace, but many people really do operate this way, spending the greater part of their life efforts in digital realms. As computers and smartphones have become better and more readily available, and as virtual meetings have become more common in both professional and social settings, the idea that meatspace and cyberspace are rough equivalents has become increasingly plausible; over time, many of the activities that chiefly took place in the former, like shopping and working and talking to other people, have slowly but inexorably become virtualized.

In imagining the effects of COVID-19 on this dynamic, it’s useful to think about virtualization as a kind of human migration. Until now, this migration has mostly been driven by pull factors: When online interactions seem more fun or more convenient or cheaper than real-world interactions, people virtualize their activities. Novel coronavirus, on the other hand, is a major, global, and sudden push factor: Rather than make virtual spaces better, it has made meatspace much, much worse. The virtualization that accompanies this retreat from physical space will find a virtual space that is not fully ready for what it is being asked to do. In this crisis moment, there are two paths forward: Either virtual space can quickly be adapted to serve new needs, or it can be abided temporarily until meatspace comes back online. This is a dilemma facing workplaces, schools—and houses of worship.

Since the first U.S. confirmed case of novel coronavirus less than two months ago, synagogues, along with other houses of worship, have massively disrupted services in order to stem the spread of the virus. In epicenters of the outbreak, like New Rochelle, New York, government officials have ordered synagogues closed, sending even major events like a bar mitzvah to videoconference. Even when not required to do so, however, many other synagogues have preemptively canceled services and suspended schools “out of an abundance of caution.” To compensate, many synagogues have ramped up their streaming options. On Purim this week, for instance, Rabbi Dan Margulies of Riverdale Minyan presided over a megillah reading featuring 60 to 80 physical and an additional 100 virtual participants, many of the latter sitting in front of their webcams in full costume. These improvised solutions are good for the moment, but before the novelty of these solutions wears off, we need to ask what is gained from the virtualization of ritual, and whether the benefits involved outweigh their large and potentially permanent risks.

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The dilemma of virtual religious congregation is not a purely logistical problem. Whereas offices are for working and schools are for learning, most of the purpose of going to synagogue is simply to be present: to be present with others, and to be present for the performance of ritual. For offices and schools, physical presence is a means; for religious spaces, presence is the goal. Whether that goal is reached with a virtual substitute is emphatically not just a question of resources and convenience; it is, instead, a referendum on the limits of virtual presence itself. Despite the internet’s extensive religious infrastructure, this is not a referendum that most religious communities were prepared to have. As religious communities choose their paths, it is worth looking at how this wave of virtualization is different from what has already taken place.

Virtual ritual spaces are as old as the internet itself. While a few of these spaces are exclusively online—a Second Life synagogue here, a virtual reality church there—the vast majority of religious virtual spaces exist only to supplement some real-world experience. Online text-study programs, like Project Zug, have gained in popularity in recent years, but are still a long way from replacing the beit midrash as the locus of Torah study. Many synagogues livestream their services, hoping to accommodate both aging members and those too timid to set foot inside a real synagogue, but despite their growing popularity these broadcasts have never seriously competed with in-person attendance. This is not for lack of trying; in the internet’s three decades there have been countless attempts to turn corners of the internet into the primary meeting spaces for religious communities. While these experiments sometimes succeed at small scale, they have never posed a serious threat to real-world spaces (although the internet itself may be making people less religious). Despite the many real-world experiences that have consumed by virtual equivalents, ritual gathering has remained a stubbornly real-world phenomenon.

This stubbornness has often been reinforced by Jewish law. Long before the internet, Rabbi Eliezer Waldenburg (d. 2006) strongly rejected the possibility of constituting a minyan through radio transmissions, as did Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (d. 1995). Even the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who championed the use of every manner of broadcasting technology, told his followers that the requirement to hear the megillah read on Purim needed to be fulfilled in person. More recently, the tens of thousands of men participating in the siyyum hashas at the Met Life stadium were instructed that one should not respond “amen” to any blessings heard over the loudspeakers.

Today, there exist a range of opinions on the viability of virtual gatherings, but even the most permissive want some number of people—at least a minyan’s worth—to meet in person, even if most are participating online. The Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has ruled that a person may recite Kaddish while connected to a synagogue via a live feed—but only if someone in the synagogue is reciting it at the same time. This arrangement makes the virtual contingent resemble nothing so much as the women’s balcony of an Orthodox synagogue: present but dependent, more onlooker than participant, unable to constitute a quorum in and of itself.

But what if the physical option is forcibly removed? Traumatic communal experiences—especially migrations—often lead to “ritual transfer,” and some of these transfers have landed rituals in virtual space. The Dalai Lama, for example, has strongly leaned into the power of virtual community for the approximately 150,000 Tibetans living in exile; a 2014 Kalachakra ceremony, documented by Dr. Christopher Helland at Dalhousie University, was carefully livestreamed specifically for this purpose, and Tibetan Buddhist monks are working to create virtual-reality experiences of religious sites that most practitioners will never get to see in person. Helland has confirmed to me that the Dalai Lama sometimes expressly tells virtual congregants that their telepresence is no different from the real thing.

Despite the Dalai Lama’s assertion, virtual ritual spaces certainly don’t feel like the real thing. In the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, one thing that has become apparent is that religious meetups involve a lot of touching, both of other people and of communal objects. Synagogues have had to ask people not to kiss prayer books or Torah scrolls. In Mecca, authorities have banned supplicants from touching the Kaaba shrine. Some Catholic churches have removed holy water from public fonts, others have suspended the practice of drinking wine from a single chalice and in others the Communion wafer is being given by hand (as opposed to being placed on the tongue) or not at all. It is hard to imagine communal religious experiences that are not tactile.

In the moment, the exile from physical ritual spaces will likely give virtual spaces a boost, and many people will be generous with their online presence, knowing that these virtual spaces are trying to fill a physical hole. Some people may find a level of community in virtual spaces that they previously had not thought possible. Eventually, though, real-world meetings will resume; some activities will return to the real world, but others may remain virtual. With regards to the synagogue, we are likely to find that the difference between can’t go to services and don’t want to go to services might become a fair bit more complicated. In the face of this impending and potentially permanent transformation, there is a choice to be made: Is physical presence an integral part of religious community, or is that just the way things have been done so far?

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Judaism, as with other religions, has a tendency to be defined by the ways in which it doesn’t “get with the times.” The Torah scroll is special because everyone else moved on to books and Jews didn’t. The grogger used to be an ordinary siren. Shabbat became defined as a day without electronics because rabbis long ago prohibited the use of electricity on that day.

Much as the Conservative movement’s decision to allow congregants to drive to the synagogue on Saturdays transformed the geography of Conservative communities, the use of ritual spaces that are primarily virtual is bound to transform any community that sanctions them. If religious leaders bow to pressure to sanctify virtual space, even as a stopgap measure, we may see a new attrition in physical attendance, which in turn will motivate the services themselves to be more appealing to virtual audiences, which in turn will make physical attendees wonder why they bothered to show up in person. These services will undoubtedly be more accessible—but they may also be shallower. If, on the other hand, religious leaders insist on the distinctiveness of physical gathering at a time when there are both long-term and acute pressures to move to virtual space, physical space will quickly become a defining feature of religious community.

This latter path is, I think, the right way to proceed. Virtual communities, despite their many good qualities, cannot replace all of the functionality of physical ones; in fact, as Sherry Turkle noted almost a decade ago, virtual communities can actually make users feel more isolated. Despite the pervasiveness of this problem, especially among the young, most religious communities have spent little time articulating anything more than vague positions about why the internet can be dangerous and why its use should be curtailed. In the present global crisis, in which so many religious institutions have turned to virtual refuges, there is an opportunity for these communities to give full-throated articulations of what it means to be present in virtual space, and what it would mean—if it is possible at all—for those spaces to retain a modicum of sanctity.

David Zvi Kalman is a Fellow in Residence at the Shalom Hartman Institute and the founder of an independent Jewish publishing house.

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