In Harry Kemelman’s Conversations with Rabbi Small, perhaps the best primer ever written on Judaism, the eponymous rav explains to an inquirer that Judaism is first and foremost a way of life. The concept of Judaism as creed fundamentally differs from the more limited focus on belief, ethnic status, or even Mordecai Kaplan’s assertion that the Jewish people are a civilization. Instead, we might imagine these and other relevant elements of Jewish habit as part of the ever-evolving zeitgeist of our people that stretches back to ancient times. For example, a secular Jew who regularly attends Friday night service might do so because it feels right and carries meaning easy to recognize but difficult to put into words. An observant Jew might engage in the same behavior out of deeply held religious convictions.
The concept of Judaism as a way of life has been much on my mind as of late amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of us now work from home, refrain from the stores and cafés until recently we thought nothing of visiting, and are socially distancing from family, friends, and the broader community. As I write, a quarter of the nation is under lockdown, with the entire population of some states informed to shelter in place. These challenges are being shared by peoples across the world as daily ways of life are changing in response to the pandemic.
It seems we are witnessing a rapid and potentially tectonic shift in how we practice Judaism, be it sacred or secular. Our historically Jewish institutions are shifting from the traditional to the digital in an effort to facilitate meaningful connections during this time of quarantine. For example, I have made it a habit of attending services on Friday night courtesy of the Facebook Live stream hosted by the Reform shul to which my family and I are members. Conservative synagogues are similarly getting into the act, and Chabad weekly extols the virtue of the Internet to offer access to our shared heritage. The Jewish Federations locally and nationally are working to bring social events to our screens large and small, and podcasts such as Judaism Unbound are curating a dialogue around what it means to be digitally Jewish. Similar changes in our Jewish way of life can be seen in our homes. On a recent Friday evening, I texted my parents a video of my daughters lighting the Shabbos candles. Last week I attended a cooking class streamed from the kitchen of our director of congregational engagement. I now know how to make a competent shakshuka; I never would have taken the class if it involved spending a weekday evening out. Most intriguing to me, however, is that the traditionally staid Jewish infrastructure is demonstrating a new level of dynamism as our community leaders explore novel modes of creating and maintaining community. What does this all mean for the future of halachah? How might these changes in the long-term might affect what it means to be Jewish?
In every generation, what it means to be Jewish has evolved in response to the broader societies in which we took up residence. We picked up logical discourse from our ancient Greek neighbors, cuisines from our Middle Eastern brothers and sisters, and a passion for the arts and sciences from our wanderings across Europe. Certain aspects of our history have also remained invariant over the millennia. Whether conceptualized as stone tablets or beloved scroll or a broad collection of analysis and debate, Torah has traveled with us to every corner of the planet. Shabbos similarly has kept us connected, be it through cessation of work or for going out for Chinese, to those who came before us. But always have our ways of life responded to the realities of the times. From Sinai to the Internet, we Jews have demonstrated nothing if not an ability to adapt.
To return to that galaxy so far away, The Mandalorian reminds us that Jewish identity is dictated not so much by the ability to claim an unbroken heritage but by living a uniquely value-laden way of life. COVID-19 is currently testing the mettle of the world, to include the Jewish people. Therein exists a lesson. Digital technologies allow us to reach out, to cross borders of nation and ideology. Let us learn the lesson well. May each of us intentionally, meaningfully, and compassionately engage with one another as together we create the future of what it will mean to be Jewish. Perhaps such reinvention rooted in the changeless has always been our creed. It is the way.