Conservative Rabbis Rule on Streaming Services on Shabbat and Yom Tov

NEW YORK – May 14, 2020 – Responding both to the COVID-19 pandemic and the pressure on many of its institutions to re-open buildings quickly, the Conservative/Masorti movement of Judaism adopted a teshuvah (or responsum) this week that could allow for the livestreaming of services on Shabbat and festivals, particularly during the Jewish High Holidays this fall.

There are many caveats to this significant possible exception to Conservative movement traditions surrounding Shabbat and Yom Tov observances but the teshuvah reminds that the movement is one that values diversity in Jewish practice, recognizes the uniqueness of each congregation and acknowledges the role its rabbis serve as the mara d’atra (or decisor of Jewish law) in their communities, engaging their constituents in conversation about what is appropriate for their community in terms of Jewish practice and law.

"We are dealing with unprecedented challenges in providing the Jewish people with opportunities for communal prayer, celebrating lifecycle events and staying connected to Jewish life,” writes Rabbi Stewart Vogel, president of the Rabbinical Assembly (RA), the international association of Conservative and Masorti rabbis, to his colleagues. “We believe in the ability of our rabbis to face these challenges and want to provide you with resources to be able to do so.” Writing with him, Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, the RA’s CEO, states, “Perhaps more than ever before, rabbis are being called upon for courageous leadership and vision to guide our communities through challenging times. As we anticipate that restrictions on communal prayer will probably last for many months, we encourage you to consider how to help your communities thrive during these times, rather than just survive."

As such, the Rabbinical Assembly is committed to serving all of its rabbis and providing materials and advice for various levels of use of technology in their community.

The Conservative movement believes that a hallmark of Jewish tradition has been that Shabbat and holidays are a respite from technology.  As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught (The Sabbath, pp. 28-29), “On the Sabbath we live, as it were, independent of technical civilization; we abstain primarily from any activity that aims at remaking or reshaping the things of space.”  This must be balanced by the needs of the current moment, and along with the ongoing needs of those who, for various reasons, are not able to be physically present for prayer and study.

Planning for Shavuot, the coming pilgrimage festival commemorating the giving of the Torah, is an example of this support, including materials that may be used before Shavuot, off-line during the holiday, and on-line experiences including the movement’s first virtual continent-wide tikkun leyl Shavuot.

The teshuvah was authored by Rabbi Joshua Heller, a ninth generation rabbi, currently serving in his 16th year at Congregation B’nai Torah in Atlanta, and a member of the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS). Before rabbinical school, Rabbi Heller graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard with a degree in Computer Science.

The teshuvah had been in the works for some time prior to COVID-19 but accelerated given its relevance based on the current circumstances and the CJLS gave it priority consideration.

The goal of the teshuvah, RA leaders say, was to enable forms of remote participation in services, consonant with bringing together communities in prayer, while adhering to halakhah (Jewish law) around Shabbat observance.

This paper also has an important health and safety aspect. Many Conservative movement and other institutions feel a pressure to re-open quickly. This provides an important safety valve for communities for times when it is not safe to resume in-person worship, or where not everyone can be accommodated safely right away. It also sensitizes communities to activities that may be more high risk and potential alternatives.

It also means that those who have had recent COVID exposure or who are at higher risk have an alternative means of participation.

Nor is it necessarily permanent. The paper is an early voice in a larger communal conversation about how worship and synagogues will change as we pass through this time and beyond. Some uses of technology were approved permanently, while others are temporary measures to meet the emergency needs of communities during the pandemic.

Institutions may use the paper to support their communities during this pandemic and may well decide not to rely on it once the crisis passes.  This may be not only because of the halakhic limitations involved in using technology on Shabbat and biblical holidays, but also because of the positive values of coming together in person as a community for worship, study, and socializing.

The Conservative movement values diverse practice, and expects and encourages each community to decide in partnership with their rabbi how they will use these technologies.

This is an era of tremendous exploration and creativity in the use of different technology platforms. The paper provides a framework for rabbis and their communities to understand how particular platforms or uses might be aligned with Jewish values and practice. The paper includes technical appendices with details on how to implement these practices using current technology, including Zoom and other platforms.

The movement is building off this paper with some further specific guidance and best practices for specific services and rituals, including the high holidays, and source materials that communities can use.