Minyan in Cyberspace?

The Coronavirus pandemic has affected our lives in many unfortunate ways, and we worry that much worse is yet to come. Saving lives is our first obligation, and this responsibility led most Jewish communities across the world to cancel public worship as soon as public health officials recommended this measure. As with other aspects of our lives, prayer has migrated online, immediately raising the question of how much of the liturgy can be completed through virtual gatherings.

Certainly the essential prayers may be said alone, and this crisis dramatizes the importance of personal prayer practice. Nevertheless, our ancestors taught us that communal worship has special power (עת רצון) and emphasized the importance of gathering for worship. Our gatherings have legal, spiritual, social and psychological benefits. Our current situation of home quarantine leaves many of us feeling isolated and demoralized.

We seek to balance our need to gather, to praise God, to support each other, and to acknowledge important transitions in our lives. How much of this can be done online? What distinctions should be maintained in order to retain the integrity of Jewish worship and to celebrate once normalcy is restored? Specifically, may a minyan be made online? Please see my analysis of the subject and the primary sources below that. I pray that all who have been sickened by this disease will speedily heal, that the pandemic will speedily resolve, and that we will soon return to our holy communities with a deeper sense of appreciation for their spiritual shelter.

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Temples of the Mind: Terumah 5780

A wood model has been on display in the JTS entrance for the past few years. It depicts the 21st Century campus with all its structures—the atrium, gardens, library, auditorium and residence hall. In its three dimensionality the model is more evocative than the posters fashioned by computer aided design of phantom students occupying imagined space. Still, both model and posters have built general awareness and excitement for the experience of entering and inhabiting the constructed spaces, which has played out in slow motion over the course of this year.

The ability to imagine a reality which does not quite exist is foundational to consciousness, as Michael Graziano teaches with his attention schema theory (see part one and part two of my Sinai and Synapses consciousness blog on this subject, and its implications for Jewish life). We are constantly bombarded by sensory inputs and must construct a simplified image in order to prioritize certain signals, and thus to understand, respond to and shape external reality. This same ability allows us to project what is on the minds of others, and to imagine alternative realities, past, present and future. As we chant this week, וּרְאֵה וַעֲשֵׂה, see and then act. Our brains construct a visual model, or schema, of reality, and this allows us to preview actions such as the movement of our hands to grasp objects before attempting the task.

We have now entered the section of Torah in which a complex physical structure, the tabernacle, is imagined in the portions Terumah and Titzaveh before being built in VaYakhel and Pekudei. Modern readers are challenged to imagine this construction project in precisely the same fashion as ancient Israelites were challenged to imagine it before they began to build. And although their imagination was soon applied to physical labor, our imagination is also constructive. We read these passages and appreciate the blending of physical and spiritual qualities in our lives, and then implement that reality with buildings and rituals of our own. We share the desire and the effort to draw divinity into our living spaces so that the world can shimmer with divine glory. Continue reading

Mountain Man Moses: Mishpatim 5780

Orson Schofield Phelps, AKA “Old Mountain” was a famous guide to the Adirondack mountains in the mid-19th century. Based in Keene Valley, NY, he cut the first trail to the top of Mt Marcy in 1861 and gave many of the high peaks their current names. His face adorned with a bushy beard, his head crowned with an old beaten hat—Old Mountain Phelps enticed city folk to seek out the wild places, to gain altitude and perspective from the vantage of an ancient peak.

The best wilderness guides lead us in more ways than one, sparking curiosity, courage, endurance and strength. Their gaze leads us to notice details in nature and in ourselves. They make us uncomfortable at times—a discomfort required to learn that we are more resilient than we realize, more capable than we dared imagine.

I miss the mountains in the winter, so I dream of summer adventures. And I read about the most famous mountaineer in Jewish history, our teacher Moses. What, you haven’t noticed how many times Moses climbs mountains? He receives his first divine call on the flank of Mt. Horeb in chapter 3 of Exodus; in chapter 17 he climbs a peak to supervise the battle against Amalek; in chapter 19 he climbs Mt Sinai, descends, climbs it again, and descends (though he protests the second descent—at 80 perhaps his knees were a bit creaky). After the golden calf incident he will climb up again, experience God with great intensity, and descend with a heavenly glow, too bright for others to bear. Continue reading

Magic or Medicine? BiShalah 5780

What verse in the Torah can cost you your share in the world to come? It comes in our parashah, and is one of those lines that summarize the Torah’s agenda for Israel: “If you will heed the Lord your God diligently, doing what is upright in His sight, giving ear to His commandments and keeping all His laws, then I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians, for I the Lord am your healer” (Exod. 15:26, NJPS trans.). The first half of this verse is entirely consonant with Israelite and then Jewish religion, but the second half has proved problematic.

In its biblical context, this verse is sandwiched between complaints by the people of Israel who are thirsty, hungry and nostalgic for Egypt. With his reference to the plagues of Egypt, Moses reminds them of the blessings of their lives but also implies that mortal danger awaits those who rebel. If you do not heed the Lord diligently, then don’t expect to be spared the frightful diseases that you recently witnessed in Egypt. This threat was far from effective to judge by the following episode in the wilderness of Tsin, where the people grumbled and yearned for that very curse—to have been killed by God in Egypt.

However, Moses’s threat is not what proved problematic by the rabbinic period. On the contrary, it was the promise by God to heal Israel of all frightful diseases that caused mischief. It seems likely that Jews began using the second half of the verse as a theurgic incantation. When stricken with a malady, some Jews would apparently utter this line as a spell to heal their wounds. That, at least, is the implication of a Mishnah taught in the name of Rabbi Akiva. Continue reading

Moses meets his match; Va-Era 5780

The book of Exodus continues the stories of Genesis in many ways, but is discontinuous in one major detail. In Genesis brothers despise one another and fight for primacy, sometimes from the womb. In Exodus, the siblings Miriam, Aaron and Moses get along and support one another through difficulties. True, at the golden calf incident Moses will chide his brother, and later in Numbers Miriam and Aaron voice criticism of their dominant brother, but for most of the stressful passage from slavery to revelation, they are a solid team.

Especially as they go to confront Pharaoh, Moses and Aaron present a united front. In Chapter 6, verses 26-28, the Torah uses an unusual expression, literally, “he is Aaron and Moses,” and then, “he is Moses and Aaron.” The singular pronoun הוא emphasizes their solidarity, and the reversal of order implies their equality.

Midrash Mekhilta notes the order reversal and links this to many other situations in which the Torah reverses order. For example, in the Decalogue Israel is commanded to “honor your father and mother” but in Leviticus 19 they are told, “revere your mother and father.” Likewise heaven and earth are also listed as earth and heaven, and the patriarchs are listed in reverse order in Exod. 3. The point is that all of these subjects are considered equal. The listing of Aaron first in this passage is unusual but sufficient to establish that the brothers were equals.

And yet, there are differences between Moses and Aaron. Continue reading

Miriam to the Rescue: Shemot 5780

Although our portion introduces the Torah’s greatest figure, Moses, many of the most decisive characters this week are women. There are the midwives, Shifra and Puah, who defy Pharaoh, and Yocheved, the mother of Moses, who hides her child as long as possible, and later, Tziporah, the wife of Moses, who acts decisively to ward off a mysterious attacker, saving the life or lives of her son(s) and perhaps her husband. But the most impressive woman of them all is Miriam, the older sister of Moses, who is also identified as a prophet.

Early in chapter 2 we read, “His sister stood at a distance to know what would happen to him.” Miriam is not only watchful and passive—three verses later she will make a risky move, approaching Pharaoh’s daughter with an audacious offer. But before she acts she observes, and this quiet moment noticed by the Torah is worth exploring. Continue reading

The Vicious Cycle of Slavery: VaYigash 5780

The paradox of Parashat VaYigash is that it opens with reconciliation but ends with alienation. Perhaps this is no paradox, but just a pendulum swing. As we ask in the piyyut unetaneh tokef, מי ירום ומי יושפל, “who will be raised high, and who will be brought low?” Joseph was enslaved by his brothers, and he has returned the favor. They are beautifully reconciled at the start of the portion, but a pattern has been established. By the end of Vayigash the proud and powerful Egyptians are brought low by famine and ultimately enslaved, while the humble herders from Canaan are raised high, growing mighty in the land of Goshen. If so, then the pendulum will swing back again soon, raising the Egyptians high and bringing the Israelites into destitution and enslavement. Continue reading

Wrestling for Blessing: VaYishlah 5780

On the eve of his dreaded reunion with Esau, Jacob remained alone in the dark, and “a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.” The mysterious assailant injured Jacob, dislocating his thigh, but Jacob refused to let go, so the man pleaded with him, saying: “Let me go, for dawn is breaking!” Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” The assailant asked for Jacob’s name, and conferred a new one, Israel, “for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed” (Gen. 32:25-29).

This puzzling passage cries out for interpretation. Who was this man, and why did he attack Jacob? Why was he in such a hurry to depart before dawn? How did Jacob manage to hold on, despite his injury? If this was an unprovoked and injurious attack, then why did Jacob try to prolong it, even asking his attacker for a blessing? Who does that? How is the new name Israel a blessing, and if it really is, then why does the Torah continue to refer to him as Jacob? Why do we?

Into this blizzard of questions step the Rabbis, and they offer many answers. According to the Talmud (BT Hullin 91b), during their match Jacob questions the man—are you a thief of some sort that you are afraid of daylight? “No,” he replies, “I am an angel, and today is my first turn to sing the morning praise.” In a parallel midrashic version (Gen. Rabbah 78), Jacob pragmatically offers, “then let one of your friends sing the praise today, and you can sing tomorrow.” The angel replies, “If I miss today, then they will say, since you didn’t praise yesterday, you can’t praise today.” Continue reading

Va-Yetze 5780: The Brute Strength of Mama’s Boy

Not that there was any serious doubt, but Jacob proves himself to be mama’s boy as soon as he arrives in town. Recall that when Abraham’s servant arrived many years ago, Rebecca jumped into action, drawing water for the ten camels, simultaneously demonstrating strength and compassion. Like mother, like son, Jacob demonstrates strength and compassion when he waters Rachel’s sheep, though he also signals vulnerability when he breaks down and cries before his cousin.

The story is familiar—the shepherds tell Jacob they must wait to uncover the well, since the capstone is too heavy for just a few men. Seeing Rachel approach he is filled with strength and accomplishes the feat alone. There are many word plays that enrich this narrative—Rachel means an ewe; he cares for her sheep, hoping to win her love (whether he succeeds remains a mystery). The words “he watered” (vayashk) and “he kissed” (vayishak) are spelled the same way (וישק), reinforcing the romantic aspect of his animal husbandry. Yet the love here is not only for his newly met cousin. It remains focused on his now distant mother. The psychological drama is intense in this scene; Jacob reconnects with his mother, acting as she acted, returning in her stead to her home, but eager to return to her before too long.

Already in Midrash Bereshit Rabba the sages of Israel added new texture to this narrative. When Jacob removes the stone the text says va’yagal (ויגל) which is different from the form of the verb used just previously, va’yegalalu (ויגללו). The latter form means, “they rolled” the stone, which is what you would expect with an object too heavy to lift, even by a crowd of shepherds. Jacob’s verb seems to mean “he uncovered” which the Midrash compares to the effortless way that a person pulls a cork from a bottle. In other words, Jacob was not only strong, but super-strong. In this he is like Rebecca, who draws hundreds of gallons of water for a train of thirsty camels and then keeps going, helping the servant and then offering him hospitality. She is strong and kind, and so is her son. Continue reading

Dark Comfort: Hayei Sarah 5780

A cloud of loneliness and loss hangs over Parashat Hayei Sarah. The main losses are the deaths of our first matriarch Sarah and our first patriarch Abraham, but even the happier moments are overcast with sorrow. Why, in chapter 24, does Abraham send his servant to find a wife for Isaac? Three reasons immediately come to mind. The first is stated explicitly: Abraham doesn’t trust the Canaanite neighbors (who have just given him grief over the burial plot for Sarah) with his son; implicitly, he doesn’t trust Isaac to make the journey and match by himself; finally, Abraham is too aged to handle the task, or too worried to leave Isaac alone at home, and so he sends a servant to do the deed.

What a difference ten chapters make. Back in Genesis 14 when Abraham learned of the capture of Lot, he wasted no time, leading his servants into battle to rescue his nephew, vanquishing the local warlords almost as an afterthought. Now in chapter 24, Abraham is old, and not yet satisfied with his years. He is sad and uncertain what will become of his son and of God’s promise. Isaac at forty is incapable of handling his own affairs in the manner of his father and his future sons. Sarah is dead; the lamp in her tent is extinguished (according to Midrash Bereshit Rabba). Darkness has fallen on the camp of Abraham, and a palpable depression has settled in.

The servant reaches his destination of Aram Naharayim and the city of Nahor towards night, and causes his camels to kneel outside the city, near the well where the girls gather to draw water for their homes. Usually we skip ahead to the grand entrance of Rebecca, but let’s pause here in the dusty dusk and consider how pathetic the servant must feel. He is a tired traveler at the end of his road, at the end of the day and suddenly faced with the improbability of his task. Not only will it be hard to find Abraham’s family after all these years, but how is he to convince them to send their precious daughter off with a strange servant to start her adventure in the land of Canaan? Continue reading

Dust and Ash: VaYera 5780

“Look who thinks he’s nothing!” That’s the punch line to one of our oldest Jewish jokes—the NY Times claims it’s officially known as Jewish Joke No.73. It isn’t so funny, and I’m not retelling it here, but it does reflect an ancient Jewish conviction: True humility is a significant spiritual accomplishment.

When Abraham accuses God of injustice by planning to wipe out the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, this appears to be the height of audacity, of hutzpah. And when God quickly agrees not to destroy the cities if fifty righteous people are found in Sodom, Abraham pauses before pushing further, not to celebrate, but to admit his own inadequacy: “Here I venture to speak to my Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.” That last phrase, וְאָנֹכִי עָפָר וָאֵפֶר  “but dust and ashes” becomes Abraham’s hallmark.

This episode reflects the paradox of Abraham in all of his relationships—with Sarah and Isaac, with Hagar and Ishmael, with Lot, and with God. Abraham can be self-effacing or assertive, generous or selfish. These opposite tendencies co-exist within his heart, making you wonder who Abraham is in the end.  His only self-description is this one—dust and ashes, which is to say an ephemeral presence. As Qohelet says near the end, “And the dust returns to the ground as it was” (12:7). At his moment of greatest power—reversing a divine decision—Abraham recalls his mortality. Continue reading

Chariots of God: Lekh Lekha 5780

Once or twice a year I walk past the statue of Atlas on Fifth Avenue at 51 ST and imagine how it would feel to bear the weight of the whole world in your arms. The thought is absurd, of course, yet sometimes when one is overwhelmed it can feel that way. Many people experience more demands than can be comfortably born, more anxieties than can be soothed, more needs than can be fulfilled. Life is weighty, and there is often no alternative than to stand tall and carry on.

As far as I know Judaism does not have an exact match for this image of Atlas, though the Talmud shares a story of the giant king Og uprooting a mountain to throw onto the people of Israel, only to have it collapse back and crush him (Bavli Brakhot 54b). Rather, the Rabbis give us an image of their greatest heroes bearing not the weight of the world, but the weight of heaven.

At the end of Lekh Lekha God commands Abraham to circumcise himself, his sons, and all the males of his household. Once God finishes speaking with Abraham, it says, “then God rose off of Abraham” (Gen. 17: 22). Something similar is said about Jacob in chapter 35, when God renames him Israel, and then “God rose off of him in the place where God spoke with him” (35:13). In chapter 28:13, during the famous dream, the Torah says that God, “stood on him” (i.e. Jacob). These three verses are read by the rabbis quite literally—God was riding the saints! In Midrash Bereshit Rabba Rabbi Shimon b. Yohai exclaims that the righteous are a chariot for the divine presence. The sense is that God literally descends to the world and rides the righteous while delivering a portentous prophecy to them, and then lifts off them, presumably back to heaven. Continue reading