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Can we bend the boundaries of Shabbat without breaking them?

Never did I imagine, before the pandemic hit a year ago that the Shabbat services I lead would become such a multimedia production. The cameras, the lighting, the monitors, Zoom, livestream, YouTube, Facebook, and most of all, the technicians who work behind the scenes to make it all happen.

I am so incredibly proud of my team at Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan, who have pivoted so ably this past year in response to the crisis. I am filled with a sense of purpose knowing that our efforts have elevated the spirit of both Shabbat and the Jewish people, for our members and a growing roster of guests joining us from around the world.

Our labors, however, have come with consequences.

Yes, we have enlarged the boundaries of Shabbat engagement, but in doing so we have stretched well beyond the traditional boundaries of Shabbat observance. The texts, the teleprompters, the technology – none of it falls under the Conservative movement’s pre-pandemic interpretation of halakhah (Jewish law). Are the innovations of this past year here to stay, or will we look back on them as a singular response to this pandemic?

I remember with great clarity the first time that I decided to carry a cell phone to shul on Shabbat. It was in 2018, after a gunman killed 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue during morning services; a horrific tragedy that prompted me to balance my commitment to the safety of my community and the sanctity of Shabbat.

In retrospect that decision feels positively quaint. The job of the synagogue is both to share the sanctity of Shabbat and to uphold the very laws by which Shabbat is constructed. The uncomfortable fact of the year gone by is that we have been asked to choose between the two.

The rabbis of old well understood the paradox that in one’s efforts to create the sacred, one may find oneself engaged in activities by which the sacred is violated. In our foundational code of Jewish law, the Mishnah, they enumerate 39 categories of labor, melakhah, prohibited on Shabbat: sowing, plowing, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, and so on and so forth.

It is no accident that the 39 prohibited activities were the ones involved in the construction of the mishkan, the Israelites’ portable desert sanctuary. By rendering taboo on Shabbat the very things that established God’s sanctuary, the rabbis established a metaphysical connection between the two.

In our refrain from labor, then, a spiritual gain is available – the opportunity to enter what the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called a palace in time, to experience what the ancient mystics described as a taste of the world to come. We are reminded that it is tradition, not technology that anchors us; people, not email that sustain us; and our Creator in heaven, not commerce that we have been put on this Earth to serve.

Thinking about all this today, I feel the sting of the intergenerational “I told you so” of my rabbinic predecessors who predicted that the very labors we deploy to create space for God could be the selfsame labors by which Shabbat is breached.

I struggle as a rabbi who is called on to lead by example. By livestreaming on Shabbat, by teaching virtual Torah classes on Shabbat, by asking people to text “Shabbat shalom” to loved ones after singing L’kha Dodi, have I stepped onto a slippery slope from which there is no escape?

Befuddled as I am by Orthodoxy’s inability to see our unprecedented state of affairs as a justification for halakhic change, I am left unclear about my own red lines, as a Conservative rabbi, regarding technology use on Shabbat in the 21st century.

While I am well familiar with contemporary rabbinic debates about whether kaddish may be recited in an online minyan or whether it is preferred to open Zoom before Shabbat begins, my approach during the pandemic to such questions is best summarized as “in for a penny, in for a pound.” For better or for worse, I have chosen to go beyond the law in order to uphold the law, to break aspects of Shabbat so that many Shabbatot can be upheld into the future.

But more than my struggle as a rabbi or any theological concern that God actually cares whether I use an iPad on Shabbat, is the personal toll I feel over losing the weekly break from technology I had come to rely on.

The pandemic has tethered us all to technology in ways that we never dreamed possible. We all find ourselves in desperate need of spiritual sanctuary — akin to the man described by Rav Huna in the Talmud who travels through the wilderness for so long that he loses track of when Shabbat actually falls.

As Jews, our spiritual lives have atrophied. We have lost many of the joys that Shabbat brings – Shabbat tables filled with friends, sanctuaries overflowing with communal prayer, kiddushes buzzing with kibbitz and high-carb cookies. We have also lost the boundaries that Shabbat brings, the cessation in work and technology that differentiate Shabbat and carry us through the other six days of the week.

I own the choices I have made, but I also feel the costs incurred, and I mourn the erosion of the distinction between the Shabbat and the workweek. If nothing else, this year gone by serves as an unsolicited endorsement for the wisdom and power of our tradition. I pray that when the time comes – please God soon – to safely return, we remember the thirst we feel right now for the rituals and rhythms of our people and we recommit ourselves with a fervor that reflects our present longing.

Far more interesting than thinking about where we were last March as compared to this March, is to consider where we will be next March as compared to this March. Are the decisions we have made this year temporary measures for times of crisis, or is the proverbial toothpaste out of the tube and there is no turning back?

Predicting the future is always risky, but I believe that online Shabbat worship is here to stay. What the platform will be, how people will access it, how in-person and online communities will be integrated, and a million other questions – nobody yet knows. But I see the positive impact that live streamed services have in the sustained appreciation of so many who are otherwise disconnected from Jewish life.

As we adapt to this and other new realities, we must, nevertheless, continue to struggle with the paradox of Shabbat — committed to sharing its spirit, committed to affirming its boundaries. It is precisely at this moment when people are looking forward to return to community that rabbinic leadership should double-down on the importance of Shabbat – unplugging from technology, staying off email and leaning into in-person worship — safety permitting.

It is not an easy balancing act to both justify leniencies and affirm stringencies. But it is the balancing act by which any rabbinic career, synagogue community or individual Jewish journey should be guided.

Ultimately, our strength lies not so much in finding neat resolution to insoluble questions, but in a thoughtful and transparent embrace of the tensions we face. Difficult as it is, it is a struggle well worth having. It has sustained our people for generations. May it continue to do so for generations to come.

Elliot Cosgrove is the Rabbi of Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan.

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