In a dramatic ruling this month, Orthodox rabbis in Israel permitted families separated by Covid-19 to join each other for Seder via streaming video. This overturned two centuries of Orthodox practice, which prohibits use of electrical appliances on Sabbath and Festivals. The rabbis invoked the principle of piquah nefesh – saving life. They feared that people forced to choose between social distancing and a family Seder would risk their lives to be together.
Their fears were justified. Of all the Jewish festivals, Passover is most closely tied to family. Its traditions reflect a profound understanding of the role of shared activity in forming identity and cultivating meaning.
In Biblical times, the first night of Passover included pilgrimage, sacrifices and the preparation of special foods. But at its center was the roasting and eating in family clans of the Passover lamb. Nothing is more visceral than a shared meal, and, as empirical studies have shown, shared meat cements relationships.
All this physical togetherness was designed to carry Passover’s central message: This is us. These are our people, these are our customs, this is the story of how we got here and where we’re going.
The authors of the Hagaddah understood this. They too, after all, were faced with a crisis. Following the destruction of the Second Temple, they had to translate the physicality of pilgrimage and barbecue into a mobile medium – Passover 2.0. They chose text and family ritual, and made sure to include customs, smells and tastes that would engage people’s senses. These choices are perhaps the secret of the Seder’s resilience in the face of migration and secularization. Synagogue-based rituals haven’t fared nearly so well.
But now we face a new kind of crisis. Because of Covid-19 and social distancing, we can’t share the physicality of Seder in groups of extended family. Hence the idea of uploading togetherness – Passover 3.0.
For me, the biggest question raised by an online Seder is not whether it’s permitted but whether it’s even possible. Technically, of course it is. We can sing and eat and watch each other doing so in real time over the internet. But the Seder’s power lies in the answers it provides to two basic human needs: The need for fellowship and the need for meaning. An online seder can address the first somewhat, but not the second.
Why is this? What is lost when we move social interactions online?
The first thing we lose is physicality. Although I can join my family online as they bless the wine, and bitter herbs, I can’t smell or taste what they’re eating and drinking. A grandmother can well up with pride and empathy as her youngest grandson starts shyly to sing the Four Questions. But she can’t hold his trembling hand as he does so or enfold him in a tight hug afterwards.
We also lose mutuality. Joint activities become mirrored performances. The presence of a camera makes us more self-conscious. Consider the places your attention wanders when you’re in a Zoom meeting. For much of the conversation you’re checking how your teeth or sweater look or wondering how to move your camera to a more flattering angle.
We also lose color, warmth and depth. Being together online feels colder and paler and thinner than being together in physical space. It’s partly a question of bandwidth. As Damon Krukowski has argued, digital communications are designed to eliminate noise and amplify signal. But much of what electrical engineers consider noise, we experience as context. Many nuances of tone and timbre and inflection are lost when sounds and pictures are translated into packets of zeros and ones.
But bandwidth is only part of the problem. We lose more than information when we move our interactions online. Our ability to make and find meaning is impaired. It’s not just that only two out of our five senses are being activated. It’s also that our experience of shared space and coordinated action are removed. Meanings arise and evolve between people in context. Online interactions carry less context than shared experiences in physical space. Therefore, quite literally, they mean less.
They mean less in another sense too. It’s easier to videoconference than to meet in person, and easier to text than to call. As a result, we’re less invested in such interactions. Sharing a meal with distant relatives requires more investment. We have to coordinate guest lists, menus and travel schedules and to observe a decent interval between arrival and departure. We’re committed.
For all these reasons, an online Seder can’t provide everything an offline one does. But it can connect us and help us feel less alone. That’s nothing to be sneezed at when you’re in quarantine.
Moreover, there are things we can do to make an online Seder more meaningful. Here are a few suggestions: br>
Adjust your expectations. Recognize the medium’s limitations. You won’t to be sharing a Seder, you’ll be conducting two Seders in parallel and trying your best to link them together. Remember that everyone these days is suffering from screen overdose. You’re going to be spending at least as much time craning your neck and squinting as you are reclining and relaxing. But on the plus side, you’ll be seeing people you love celebrate their Seder alongside you. You’ll feel less alone.
Unitask. We think we’re good at dividing our attention. But we’re not. Trying to do so is not only tiring but reduces the quality of each of the actions we’re attempting to perform. Instead of trying to act as if you’re all in the same room together, be fully where you are. This means defining in advance when each location will do its own thing and when the link between locations will be the focus. Consider spending some of the evening with screen off and sound on, and other parts with sound off and screen on.
Meaning before medium. Rituals that cultivate belonging have a message beyond specific practices. What began as a tribal tale of redemption became a ritual of national pilgrimage and then a family feast at home. Now we’re reconfiguring that feast. If we focus on the redemption story at Passover’s heart, we’ll find new ways to connect with it, and each other, in any medium.
Eli Gottlieb is an Israeli cognitive psychologist and a visiting professor at The George Washington University. He researches how culture, identity and technology influence people’s beliefs.
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