Online Judaism is an echo chamber. Will we ever see those we disagree with again?
I’m hardly the first to observe that the speed with which so much Jewish communal life leaped online in the first weeks of shutdown was head-snapping. I’ve been to more Zoom classes, Zoom Shabbat services, Zoom concerts and ceremonies, more Zoom funerals and shivahs and bar mitzvahs in six weeks than I ever could have managed in real-time.
My kids Zoom to day school and my son baked a cake in Hebrew for Shabbat. Perhaps because Jewish ritual and observance is so communal, by definition it migrated online almost seamlessly. Long after we first panicked about the demise of brick and mortar Jewish institutions, it’s clear that Judaism can and will thrive so long as there’s a moderator, a camera, a dial-in number and a microphone.
But I worry now more than ever about bubbles; about the ways we are self-selecting our communities in ways that only amplify our own views and preferences. Jewish communal life in reality-based-times was one of the last bastions of diversity of ideas; of the chance encounter with someone whose politics and ideology diverged from yours. Shabbat mornings forced you to rub along beside people who voted differently, thought differently, observed differently, and we made space for each other – reluctantly sometimes, uncomfortably sometimes – because as long as there have been Jewish spaces, there have been profound differences to transcend.
But as I move online, I notice that I’m studying with people who think as I do; I’m worshipping with people who share my exact values; my Zoom calendar is a massive array of pick-your-own-ending experiences that often end precisely where I began.
Who knew that someone in Madison, Wisconsin might share my precise taste in melodies, books, and values? And now that I have met them, why would I ever again sing with, learn from, or give tzedakah to, anyone with whom I have profound disagreements? Behold how good and how pleasing it is for all of us to sit together in perfect unity.
But maybe not every single day.
I’ll admit it: I need to hear things I dislike; I need to pray next to people who make me crazy; I need my children to hear from people whose ideas diverge radically from my own. And long after the world split apart into its ideological bubbles, and we all succumbed to whatever epistemic closure most suited us, Jewish communal life forced us to listen to, get along with and even honor a great many people we didn’t encounter in other places and spaces.
And while I can’t yet contemplate how this crisis will end, and I am deeply grateful every single day for the rabbis and teachers and camp counselors who have lit the path through the darkness, I fear that we will never again return to some of the Jewish buildings, spaces, and experiences that forced us to confront the fact that as Jews our job sometimes is to fight, to shake our fists, to insist that we will never again darken the door of someplace or other again, and then show up sheepishly the next time.
I hope that after COVID, we realize that we do best when we make space for Judaism that is different and uneasy, even though we have learned that we need never grapple with it again.
Dahlia Lithwick is a senior editor at Slate, and in that capacity, has been writing their “Supreme Court Dispatches” and “Jurisprudence” columns since 1999. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Harper’s, The New Yorker, The Washington Post, The New Republic, and Commentary, among other places. She is host of Amicus, Slate’s award-winning biweekly podcast about the law and the Supreme Court. Lithwick earned her BA in English from Yale University and her JD degree from Stanford University. She is currently working on a new book, Lady Justice, for Penguin Press.