Why our Masorti shul is streaming services

The rabbi of the New London Synagogue explains why it has turned to technology for the High Holy Days in this Covid-struck year


For my Reform and Liberal colleagues, traditional markers of Shabbat observance take second place to providing online prayer communities on Shabbat. Since lockdown bit, breakout rooms, chat functions and the rest have been employed to give Progressive Jews access to Shabbat prayer.

For my Orthodox colleagues, the answer is equally clear, but in the other direction. Technology can be used, but not in breach of classic modes of Shabbat observance. In the run up to Pesach a few, largely Sephardic, Orthodox rabbis suggested a Zoom Seder might be permitted, but the idea that Covid-19 could justify the use of computers on the most holy days of the year is anathema in Orthodoxy, especially in synagogues.

But for me, and the Masorti community I serve, the issue is less clear.

The halachic problems of streaming and computer use on Shabbat or Yomtov are two-fold. First there are the technical categories of forbidden forms of work. The rabbis of the first century list a raft of categories, including writing and creating sparks, and traditional observance of the Sabbath entails avoiding breaching not only the most direct example of these forbidden categories, but also “descendants” of these categories.

Typing on a keyboard is problematic as a “descendant” of the major category of writing. Turning on a computer is likewise a “descendant” of the category of lighting a fire.

Then there is an over-arching category of shvut, things that are just not in keeping with the spirit of Shabbat.

It would, I suppose, be possible, to duck and dive in search of legal minutiae which might permit attending a rock concert or a football match without breaching any of the technical classic prohibition involved in Shabbat observance, but those things would still be shvut and would remain unacceptable, from a traditional perspective, even if they involved no technical breach. Usually. But Covid-19 is not usual.

There is, clearly, a huge difference between exploiting legal niceties to justify turning up at a football match on Shabbat and using a similarly bold approach to welcome Jews into an experience of communal prayer on the most sacred, and beloved, days of the year.

Not least since, for so many, there is no possibility of safely attending an in-building service. There is, of course, a danger of the slippery slope, but as a rabbi I’ve been deeply moved by the way members of my synagogue, New London, have time and time again wanted to know how they are to be able to connect over Rosh Hashanah this year.

At New London, we’ll be streaming, but attempting to avoid halachic breaches as we do so. We’re using a “set and forget” system and streaming directly into the New London website. The cameras, microphones and server will be live from before Yomtov and viewers will be able to turn on their computers and load the stream before Yomtov also.

There will be no need for anyone to write, cause a spark or even breach any of the descendants of these major categories while participating online. And while computers are definitely paradigmatic examples of weekday tools, a traditional approach to shvut should be set in the context of other broader goals of Jewish engagement.

It’s a new development for our central London synagogue and it’s been remarkable to see registrations of interest come in from across the UK and even abroad. We’re excited to share the blend of traditional liturgy and open-minded and open-hearted Torah that is the marker of our Masorti approach.

But as to the question who is right, between the differing approaches to streaming taken across the Jewish world this New Year, I suspect the Chinese communist leader Zhou Enlai is probably right, “It’s too soon to tell.”

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