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Judaism is evolving. Sacred life on screen is here to stay

Every day at 3 p.m., for the past seven weeks, D. sits up in his hospital bed in Manhattan, turns on his iPad, and joins me along with 50 or so others from all over the world, at our afternoon minyan, called Daily SoulSpa. Like millions worldwide, D. now finds solace in access to spirit and community in ways he did not seek and would not have found, had we not moved all our ritual programming online.

People of all ages, faiths and locations are expressing appreciation and hope that our ongoing online ritual reality continues indefinitely.

Amichai Lau-Lavie

Like so many who are challenged by access and mobility even in non-corona reality, and like all of us at this time, D. is grateful for the chance to connect, to be inspired, and to be less isolated and alone. He is far from alone in this. People of all ages, faiths and locations are expressing appreciation and hope that our ongoing online ritual reality continues indefinitely, even post social isolation. I believe it must.

Like it or not, sacred life on screen is here to stay. As our world rapidly rearranges mid-pandemic, we who gather regularly in spiritual communities to connect with inner life, with mystery, and with each other, are in new territory. Across denominational divides and among all faithful, questions rise: Does communal religious practice work well enough virtually to eventually replace physical gatherings, not just under lockdown? Can significant aspects of congregational life survive and thrive online?

While much of this digital frontier is too new to tell, Judaism’s millennials-old agility in recreating the norms and forms of ritual life and societal values can be of immense aid to us to what waits ahead, providing us with blueprints for courageous and bold experiments.

One of the more dramatic shifts in Jewish life came in response to the destruction of the Second Temple, 2,000 years ago. That crisis helped shape the creative Rabbinic Judaism we’ve inherited. We evolved from sacrificing animals in a central worship site to a local home-based religion of prayers, with religious leadership of merit replacing a dynastic and divisive model of priests born into service. The evolutions took decades.

Some was lost, much was gained. A similar case can be made regarding the invention of printing in the 16th century and the radical impact of extended literacy on cultural and religious age-old ways.

What religious evolutions await us now?

In recent years and with more urgency these recent weeks, many in the world and in the Jewish community have been exploring the advantages of tech to reframe terms of religious engagement and participation.

When my father died five years ago, I began a weekly online phone-in Kaddish, which is still going strong, offering consolation to thousands. The main rabbinic rebuke I received in response to this experiment was fear-based and not unreasonable: Once people get used to saying Kaddish from their kitchens, why will they bother leaving their homes? My answer was and will remain – both/and.

As we learn to trust technology and use its assets towards the greater good, we will increasingly be able to harness it towards a more accessible, engaging and vibrant spiritual experience for many more seekers. Some of what we love will be lost, but much can be gained. We will continue to meet in person as soon as we can — and must configure the ratio and priority of digital divine life as well.

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This pandemic, still in early stages, is a global rite of passage none of us have ever lived though, impacting our bodies, our souls and minds. With our mourning and anxiety, there are blessings: We’re fortunate to be connected with each other like never before through technology, to be holding on to true and tried tools of inspiration, even as we reinvent the ways these tools are used to help us live, survive, and thrive.

For D., for me, and for so many of us, investing in online rituals will be a big part of how we plan to get back to normal.

Online rituals, gatherings, and prayers not only work: they must work, and they must be rendered 100% kosher at this time when we need each other and sacred context more than ever. Our hallowed and sometimes rigid laws, no matter how ancient, must evolve, as they and we always do, to accommodate these unprecedented times.

Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founding Spiritual Leader of Lab/Shul NYC and the creator of Storahtelling, Inc.


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