“An Extraordinary Time”: Conservative and Orthodox Halachic Approaches to Jewish Observance during the COVID-19 Pandemic
Susan R. Breitzer
During the Covid-19 Pandemic, religion and public health appeared to have an uneasy relationship, with some religious groups becoming hostile to basic public health measures that interfered with their gatherings and practices. And the American Jewish world was no exception, with Orthodox Judaism gaining a reputation for indifference and even hostility to the lifesaving measures that its own religious tenets mandated. Some of the most memorable images of this period are of religious Jews gathering in larger crowds for the funeral of an important rabbi who had died of the disease, or burning masks offered to them.
Yet this image did not tell the whole story, and it unfairly stigmatized the many Orthodox Jews who willingly adjusted their religious practices and their rabbis whose rulings shaped their safety measures. Media assumptions ignored the influence of respected authorities within Orthodox Judaism and the reasons why some Orthodox Jews mistrusted secular authorities. This essay, therefore, will describe and explain the practices that resulted from the Orthodox halachic decision-making process.
The essay will also compare these Orthodox halachic responses to the pandemic with those of the Conservative movement in American Judaism. In particular, I will emphasize the latter movement’s more lenient approach to halachah, characterized especially by its not-quite-precedented accommodations concerning the use of technology on the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat) and holy days. For instance, in 1950 a Conservative teshuva (rabbinical ruling) permitted driving to synagogue (but not elsewhere) on Shabbat, reflecting the reality of American suburbanization, and making a major break with the traditional prohibitions against vehicle travel on Shabbat. There is also the more recent example of the teshuva by Rabbi Joshua Heller permitting live-streaming Shabbat and holiday services for those unable to attend due to illness or other conditions that limited mobility, with limitations regarding how, when, and by whom the broadcast could be done. During the pandemic, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS), the Conservative movement’s halachic decision-making body, built on those precedents but went much further in the decision-making process that facilitated the ubiquity of Zoom in Conservative Jewish religious life. This essay, therefore, will also analyze the Conservative halachic responses to the pandemic, its promises and pitfalls, and the challenges of transitioning back to a more technology-free experience as the pandemic has waned.
Orthodox Judaism first emerged in the ninteenth century, with the beginning of Modern Orthodox Judaism, founded by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in response to the emergence of the Reform movement in Germany. Orthodoxy reshaped what previously had been simply traditional Judaism. While Orthodox Jewry today follows a spectrum of strictness, it is uniformly characterized by adherence to halachah. The Conservative movement, founded in the United States in the early twentieth century, also emerged in response to the excesses of the nineteenth century American Reform movement, and sought a middle path, conserving tradition (hence the name), while allowing for modernization. Both movements have become part of the American Jewish scene and over the last century have continued to adapt (or sometimes resist adapting) to the changes posed by modern American life. And during the pandemic, both faced challenges to religious observance not seen since the Great Influenza of 1918.
From March 2020 onward, when the United States officially declared a public health emergency, the Covid-19 pandemic caused severe disruptions in Jewish life. Synagogues and other religious institutions shut down, and most in-person services and other activities were suspended. It did not take long for rabbis and other Jewish leaders to search for ways to address the disruptions created by the pandemic in order to maintain meaningful observance of Shabbat and Jewish holidays as well weekday prayer services. Toward these ends, both movements turned to halachah, reflecting a long history of rabbinic legislation in response to a variety of crises and social changes. The Conservative movement’s approach built on its history of rabbinic fidelity to halachah, while allowing for adaptability and flexibility. During the pandemic, Orthodox Judaism maintained a stricter adherence to Jewish tradition, but it also adapted to the emergency. I should note that the Orthodoxy I speak of is primarily Modern or Centrist Orthodoxy, though there are also examples from ultra-Orthodox or haredi Judaism, where a trusted religious authority made a difference in compelling compliance from the laity.
Three common principles have informed the halachic decision-making in both movements. The first, pickuach nefesh, saving life (even if it involves temporarily violating Jewish law), is the most familiar. Another is sakanat nefashot—preventing danger to others, which can shape decisions about observance in advance. And both were shaped by the one that has been invoked the most throughout the pandemic—she’at hadehak, a difficult hour (or extraordinary hour) that permits the setting aside of certain restrictions on a temporary basis—something that would be especially salient in the Conservative movement’s decisions permitting any electronics during Shabbat and Festival services. In employing these principles, both movements showed surprising similarities, with some of the key differences centering around the use of communications technology in religious observance. But differences aside, these principles shaped the decision-making on a variety of issues affecting Jewish observance, ranging from prayer services to Shabbat and holidays to life-cycle observances, especially those surrounding death and mourning.
In Jewish practice, daily prayer is obligatory for men (and in the Conservative movement equally for men and women) and the preferred mode of prayer is in a group of at least ten adult Jews (adult Jewish males in Orthodoxy) called a minyan. But when meeting in person in the usual way to pray in a minyan became unsafe, both Conservative and Orthodox rabbinical organizations sought to find ways to maintain group prayer. For the Conservative movement, the question became whether a minyan could be constituted virtually, through meeting technologies such as Zoom. In this case, the CJLS, referring to an earlier teshuva by Rabbi Avram Reisner, sought to address the following questions: (1) Could one fulfill one’s prayer obligations virtually? and, (2) Could one count in a minyan via Zoom, and if so, under what circumstances? In parsing the question, there was a surprising consensus across the denominational spectrum that a minyan should ideally be constituted in person, but the Conservative movement addressed the question based on Talmudic sources that discussed whether people could pray as a group from different rooms as long as they could see each other. Although the official conclusion for the Conservative rulings was that people need to gather in person for a minyan, once a minyan was constituted, a person could say kaddish remotely with it. In practice, though, during the worst phase of the pandemic, many Conservative minyanim met entirely on Zoom, with the proviso that at least ten people must have cameras on. There were also special considerations for saying kaddish, as well as for the special demands of a Torah reading, including whether one could say the blessing for the Torah reading over Zoom. Rabbi Joshua Heller’s guidelines for Streaming Services on Shabbat and Yom Tov, approved by The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly, explains these decisions.
For the Orthodox, virtual minyanim were never an option, even for weekdays, so the focus was on conducting socially-distanced minyanim, and minimizing interpersonal contact during the Torah reading. When deciding on guidelines for the maximum number of minyan participants, most Orthodox congregations took civil regulations into account, reminding us that the Supreme Court case challenging restrictions on gatherings in houses of worship only told part of the story. One understudied aspect of this issue, however, was the extent to which these decisions facilitated women’s participation, beyond less strict requirements concerning the mechitza (the divider between men and women) in outdoors services. One Orthodox minyan, the Beth El Orthodox Kehlliah, in Durham, North Carolina, initially allowed for up to fifteen people, theoretically allowing for women’s participation, while still maintaining a “safe minyan” (more than ten men). And when it came to Torah readings and maintaining social distancing, rulings included one favoring the ba'al koreh (Torah reader) reading all of the blessings for each Aliyah (section of the weekly reading), rather than having different individuals called up. The Orthodox Kehillah for a time adopted the practice of those called to the Torah staying by their seats when they stood to say the blessings. For these communities, Zoom was not an option, so they made adjustments in order to maintain their ability to meet in person.
Daily prayer, while at the heart of the ritual adjustments for safety, was just one aspect of the divide between Conservatism and Orthodoxy. For the Conservative movement, it came down to using the principle of she’at hadehak to permit the use of technology on Shabbat and holy days for the duration of the pandemic, albeit with guidelines intended to minimize the disruptiveness of video and computer use on Shabbat, such as setting things up in advance, and, when possible, having a non-Jew manage the technology. And because for Orthodox Jews, the use of Zoom (or other technology) for Shabbat and holiday worship was simply never an option, Shabbat and festival-related rulings focused on leniencies to protect life and health. These included the permissibility of seeking treatment for Covid (including drug prescriptions) if one was sick on Shabbat or festivals—that individuals should make arrangements in advance if possible, but they should not not hesitate to call their providers when necessary. In fact, one ruling by Rav (Rabbi) Dr. Aaron Glatt, an M.D. and Orthodox rabbi, described an individual who was strict about Shabbat at the expense of their health as a “chasid shoteh” (pious fool). And because mental health was a consideration as well, there were multiple rulings permitting making and accepting phone calls during multi-day holidays in order to succor people who lived alone and were mentally vulnerable. The Orthodox Jewish emphasis on life and health was clearly manifest in these halachic rulings.
As rabbis in both movements legislated health-and-safety related observances, two Jewish holidays stood out in the number of special considerations. The first were the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when during normal times more Jews gathered in synagogue than during any other part of the year. Beyond the now familiar divide between Zoom and in-person socially-distanced services (which in Orthodoxy could mean limits on the usual numbers or multiple services), there was the common issue of how to maintain the kedusha (holiness) of the High Holiday experience when a full-length service might not be possible, especially during the first year of the pandemic, when vaccines were still in the experimental stage. Therefore, rabbinic authorities in both movements addressed the common question of whether and how the service should be shortened. The CJLS, for example, ruled that certain piyyutim (liturgical poems) could be eliminated, as well as in some cases, repetition of the Amidah (standing prayer) except for the “highlights.”
Among the Orthodox authorities, Rabbi Herschel Schachter, author of multiple Covid-related teshuvot, notably opposed the elimination of the Viddui (confession) or Avodah (remembrance of the Temple service) on Yom Kippur. And when it came to the blowing of the shofar (ram’s horn), one of the essential features of Rosh Hashanah (when it does not fall on Shabbat) the Conservative movement debated whether hearing the Shofar via electronic communication “counted.” The majority-favored practice appeared to have been to arrange in-person blowings for small, socially distanced groups.
The other holiday that required the most special considerations was Passover, the festival celebrating the ancient Israelites’ freedom from Egyptian enslavement. Here, concern centered on seder gatherings. The Conservative movement decided to permit Zoom seders with certain guidelines, such as that each participant had access to, if not a full seder plate, the main ritual foods. While a few Orthodox rabbis gave limited permission for Zoom seders, Orthodox halachic focus was on how to celebrate the seder alone if needed. Many Orthodox rabbis discouraged family visiting and travel during the intermediate days. When it came to preparations for Passover, the Conservative movement outlined leniencies for the usually intense advanced cleaning and advocated the Ashkenazic (Central and Eastern European Jews) consumption of kitniyot (rice and legumes), traditionally only done by Sephardic (Spanish, Portuguese, and Middle Eastern Jews), something the movement had already controversially decided to allow. Orthodoxy made no such general leniency, though Rabbi Schachter, in Piskei Korona (Rulings on Corona) permitted taking vitamins that contained kitniyot for preventative health reasons. The Orthodox rabbinic authorities instead focused more on rituals like biur chametz (burning of leavened products), with Rabbi Schachter and other authorities forbidding public burnings on account of social distancing and avoiding the appearance of Jewish indifference to the public health emergency.
The halachic willingness to modify practices to preserve life and health did not stop with Shabbat and holiday observances. All of the major Jewish life cycle events produced challenges regarding Covid-safe observance, but the most halachic attention was paid to rituals surrounding death and burial, from regulations for modifying or even omitting the taharah (ritual preparation of the body) to funerals to the practice of shiva. While on these matters there was considerable similarity between Orthodoxy and non-Orthodox movements, the most significant differences stood out when it came to substitutes for in-person Shiva gatherings. In the Conservative movement, not only did shiva over Zoom become the accepted practice, but it also became rabbinically approved for shiva minyanim more readily than for regular minyanim. For example, Rabbi Daniel Greyber of Beth El Synagogue in Durham, North Carolina, recalls that Zoom shivas were one of the intermediary steps to the transition to Zoom services. Again, though, the decision brought out the issue of the permissibility of saying Kaddish virtually. Even in Orthodoxy, where Zoom services never were an option, Rabbi Shmuel Hain permitted comforting the mourner via Zoom with the recommendation that mourners take care to include family-only Zoom time. In addition, Rabbi Hain encouraged historically recognized alternatives to saying kaddish, including daily text study in memory of the dead—something that had the salutary effect of equalizing female mourners, who traditionally did not say Kaddish. The special challenges the pandemic presented to mourning the dead and comforting the living displayed how both movements addressed the interface of halachah and technology.
As the pandemic receded and vaccination became more widespread, Jewish legal principles as well as safety regulations played a role in transitioning back to normal, in terms of reopening and continued safety measures. The Conservative movement, though, may be facing the greater challenge in now rolling back what Rabbi Greyber has described as the “electronic footprint,” by reducing the presence of technology within the sanctuary and limiting active participation in the service to in-person participants. The challenge of this transition “back” is reflected in teshuvot addressing the question of balancing the use of technology to accommodate worshippers with genuine special needs and discouraging those who would merely make electronic participation their preferred option. It has come down to when/where the designation of she’at hadehak no longer applies.
Jewish halachic responses to plagues are no newer to history than plagues themselves. But the role of modern technology in mitigating the disruptions of the pandemic to Jewish life are unprecedented and may have long-ranging effects. Both the Conservative movement and Orthodoxy’s religious leadership responded thoughtfully to the halachic challenges Covid-19 presented. And even when the results have been less than perfect, they show the potential for Jewish law as a living system, able to reshape Jewish practice in response to a pressing need and to demonstrate Judaism’s central commitment to preserving life.
: Tamar Ross, Expanding the Palace of Torah: Orthodoxy and Feminism, Second Edition (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2004, 2021) 270.
: Chemla, Philippe, “Orthodox Kehilla/Beth El Outdoor Reopening Guidelines,” Email 20 June 2020.
: Chemla email, 20 June 2020.
: Susan Breitzer interview with Rabbi Daniel Greyber, 9 March 2022.
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