Dr. Joshua Edelman
Josh is senior lecturer at the Manchester School of Theatre, Manchester Metropolitan University. Though his original training is in the anthropology of religion, he has worked for over a decade as a theatre director, largely in Dublin and New York. His research looks at both theatre and religion as fields of social performance, especially in the contemporary West. Josh is the principal investigator for BRIC-19, a research project examining how British religious communities have adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions it has imposed. The project aims to document, analyse, and understand the new ways that religious communities are coming together, and to use those findings to help make religious communities stronger and more resilient for the future.
We have abused
We have betrayed
We have been cruel
We have destroyed
And embittered other people’s lives.
That is an emotionally heavy load. And it’s made heavier by the strict fasting – no food or water from sunset the night before till sunset that evening. You do start to feel quite vulnerable, physically and emotionally. But you look around, and you see everyone else with the same struggle. You hear the rumblings of other stomachs, and notice how even the best readers stumble over their words. The chorus of voices in reading and singing the prayers together, the energy that you get from that community – it lifts you up. Of course, the main source of hope on Yom Kippur is that our God is a loving and forgiving God, who welcomes back wayward sheep year upon year, but almost as helpful is the constant reminder that you are being welcomed as part of a flock. The work of Yom Kippur is not just about me; it is, and has always been, about us.
I wanted to start with my typical experience of Yom Kippur to contrast it with my experience of this year. Of course, because of the pandemic, we could not gather. And so I spent Yom Kippur worship this year on my own, sitting on my sofa, watching the live streamed service on our smart television. I tried to do what I could to transform my living room into a space suitable for prayer. I tidied up, I removed anything that might be distracting, I put on my best suit and kippah, I covered the coffee table with a prayer shawl, and I tried to concentrate. The streaming service was extremely well done (though I admit my biases as rabbi’s husband here) – it was clear, musical, well organised, engaging, and had plenty of pre-recorded contributions from different members of the community, The tech was well handled– that wasn’t the problem. Nevertheless, it was the most draining and difficult Yom Kippur I’ve experienced as an adult. At the end of the day, my wife came home and found me like this:
That felt sense of primal solidarity is what the anthropologist of religion Victor Turner called communitas. He argued that it arose from shared experiences — pilgrimages were his primary examples — and was so deeply felt that it could serve a force of resistance to formal political or religious rules and hierarchies. Rather than an underlying structure that grounded the other forms of social order, he called it an antistructure, and argued it was all the more powerful for it. This is a common theme in the anthropology of religion – that the religious impulse is, at its core, felt before it is believed, and lived before it is understood. These academic claims echo with my own experience of a lived Jewish life. The rabbis have made much of the response of the people (in Exodus 24:7) to Moses’s reading out of the revelation on Sinai: ‘na’aseh v’nishma,’ they replied: we will do, and we will hear – first comes the doing, and from that will come the understanding.
In all aspects of our lives, the pandemic has been isolating, and of course that includes our faith. You don’t need me to tell you how difficult the last year has been. We have all become much more comfortable with technology, and that means that we are quickly becoming comfortable with ways of building community that don’t necessarily rely on being in the same room. And in our isolation, we’ve been hungry for them. I’m quite proud of the ways my own synaoguge has worked to maintain a sense of community in isolation. Traditionally, after each sabbath service, there would be a kiddish with bread and wine and chat in the synagogue’s social hall. We still do that, but we’ve moved it to Zoom. Sure, that means all of the technical difficulties of large-group Zooms that we’ve come to know and tolerate, like background noise, camera issues, ‘you’re on mute!’ and the like, but despite this all, it’s a connection and a chat, especially for those longstanding synagogue members for whom the synagogue is a central part of their social life.
One of my favourite ways the synagogue has kept these connections going is the weekly Tots’ Shabbat service, officially designed for the under-5 age group but a guilty pleasure for us grown-ups, too. It looks a bit like a children’s television version of a service – lots of direct address to the camera, plenty of singing, surprises, repetition, a bit of Jewish education, silly dancing, and so on – but because it is on Zoom, there’s a lot more interactivity. Just as was the case before the pandemic, each child gets a personal welcome from the rabbis, and every particularly special piece of dancing or well-answered question and tell gets a specific call out. At an age-appropriate level, this is exactly what Jewish worship is supposed to do. We come together to praise God, to learn, to explore, and to celebrate together. Perhaps the online format is less of a barrier for children than it is for adults, but the goal is the same.
Traditionally, one of the biggest causes of Jewish isolation has been geography. There simply aren’t that many of us, and for those Jews living in areas with small Jewish populations, there can be very few opportunities to build up that sense of community. If successful, online gathering could profoundly change that. Online talks and lectures are now common, and the Jewish world has embraced them, giving people everywhere access to talks by major religious scholars from their own homes. This lowering of geographic barriers does not just mean that, increasingly, Jews can live wherever they want. It means they can live however they want, too. Perhaps the mode of worship that your local synagogue offers is not to your liking, or there’s just not enough of it. Now, you can go online and find another community that’s more suited to your needs, as either a supplement or a replacement. Online communities have thrived in other areas of our social life – why should religious communities be an exception?
My own community, like most synagogues, was set up to serve its local area. But during the pandemic, it became clear that, if you can’t come to the building anyway, it really doesn’t matter if you’re down the street or half a world away. The community had always had members from farther afield – mostly those who had some past or family connection to the congregation - but during the lockdown, a new group came into focus: those who might have some Jewish life where they live, but were nevertheless attracted to our forms of worship and community as an important part of their spiritual lives. We had fellow worshippers logging in almost every week from Massachusetts, South Africa, Ireland, Sweden, Germany, and elsewhere. To call them anything but ‘members’ sounded ridiculous – if they wanted to be part of our community, why shouldn’t we welcome them? But what, then, does it mean to be member of a synagogue that you may never set foot in? And what kind of community can you form when its tie to geography is beginning to loosen? This challenge was so profound that we, in fact, started using a different name. Instead of ‘Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue,’ a name that defined us by where we were, we chose the name ‘The Ark Synagogue,’ a name that defined us by why we were. (Briefly, there are two ‘Arks’ in Judaism, with different names in Hebrew: the Ark or cabinet which houses the scrolls of Torah, a focal point of all synagogues and, in our case, also a beautiful architectural feature that connects us to our Czech and Slovak heritage, and Noah’s Ark – or, to take the Hebrew literally, Noah’s ‘basket,’ which, like the basket of Baby Moses, sustains life and community through a plague of waters. This double-meaning – tradition, learning, community coming together, the caring protection from dangerous waters – seemed to sum up why the synagogue did what it did, so we took it as our name.) This transformation was both a spiritual and a practical challenge. How will membership fees work, and how about weddings and burials, both of which really do require physical presence? And will that sense of solidarity, that communitas that got me through Yom Kippur, still be there if our community gathers online?
I genuinely don’t know, and I worry about it. We live in interesting times, as the Chinese curse says, and what will feel normal and comfortable and social to us after this pandemic fades away, is something we can’t yet know. With my academic hat on, I am running a research project on this very question - on how religious communities of all sorts across Britain have adapted the way they worship and gather in response to the pandemic, and effective these adaptations are in serving people’s spiritual and communal needs. And with all the certainty that comes from being married to the most intelligent rabbi I know, I can tell you that if any community can make this transition successfully, the Ark can. It’s not a question of a lack of will or resources. It’s just that I genuinely don’t know if it’s possible. But I do think it’s necessary. I can’t imagine any religious community operating without it.
The move to put everything online has given us access to an extraordinary wealth of religious resources. If there is something Jewish that I want to find on my computer, I almost certainly can. Poetry, liturgy, texts, art, music, movies, a discussion with like-minded people, all of it is now there for the taking. And this means that religious leaders and congregants around the world have access to ideas and things they never had before. That’s a very big deal. But experiences don’t travel as well as words, sounds or images do. Let me take the example of music. There are several traditions of Jewish liturgical music, from the centuries-old traditional prayer chants, to the mid-19th century German traditions that sound like the Romantic choral and operatic music of their day, to late 20th century American-folk styles built around guitars and campfire singalongs, to contemporary Israeli settings that have begun to incorporate the sounds of the wider Jewish world, from Morocco to Yemen. I’ve got time for them all, and now, on any given Friday night, I can join a service with pretty much any of them. I can drop in on an experimental synagogue in Tel Aviv or the classically grand Central Synagogue of New York with its world-class cantor, to experience worship that I couldn’t in my own north London neighbourhood. These opportunities expand my sense of what Jewish worship can be. On the other hand, I miss singing along with my congregation. Our choir is lovely and we have very good musicians who accompany us, but the point of singing along with everyone else is not the perfection of the sound, but that you get to sing. Lifting your voices with others, no matter how ropey the harmony, can be a viscerally powerful form of that communitas that I’ve been talking about. If this was an ‘ordinary’ JCM conference, I’d demonstrate that right now by asking us all to sing together, no matter what you think of your voices. But I can’t do that, because I am sadly far away from you, and any attempt to sing together live is doomed to fail. (And based on the physics of sound, I can’t imagine this is a problem that the software will solve any time soon.) So I have an access to resources and ideas and things that I never had before. But the communal experience is much, much harder.
I should say that other Jewish groups face challenges that, as a liberal Jew, I don’t. Orthodox Jewish sources generally consider the use of electronic devices to be a form of work which is impermissible on the Sabbath or most holidays. Most of the tools that I’ve been talking about here are thus not available to these Jews at the very times that I find them the most useful. I have a different understanding of the commandment of Sabbath rest than most Orthodox Jews do, but I do see the point. There is something uncomfortable about using the same device that you use to do your daily work as a tool for prayer. Holy things are, by definition, supposed to be set apart from mundane ones, and the way in which we can watch a service just as we can watch a television show raises a host of problems. But for myself, I think it’s more productive to think about how we are using the tools we have and not just which tools we are using.
Like all things, this pandemic will end, and the question of what Jewish community will look like after this is very much open. I do think, in the Jewish world and elsewhere, that people will become more willing to demand that their communities listen to, understand, and serve their spiritual needs. Once we have seen the breadth of what is available online it will be hard to go back to simply accepting whatever a local rabbi happens to offer without question. And I think there will be pressure on local communities to incorporate more of the wider Jewish world into their lives via technology, as we’re already doing at the Ark. But I think that will need to be balanced with our basic need to feel that connection which is so hard to get without being in the same room. And so, for next year’s Yom Kippur services, I hope to experience new melodies and readings and images that have come from this newly-opened wealth of shared ideas. That will only make my experience of Yom Kippur richer and more meaningful. But I do hope that I will be able to do so sat next to my fellow passengers on the Ark, hearing their stomachs rumble, exchanging a casual smile across the room, and joining them in a not-quite-in-tune recitation of the failings that we all can be borne because we bear them together.
Thank you, and I look forward to our discussion.