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Trying to Return to Reading the Torah: A Thought Experiment

Torah Scroll

Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

With the Governor’s 1st phase reopening guidelines, it is possible for Houses of Worship to gather at 25% capacity. At the time of this writing, the CBI leadership is deliberating on what makes sense for our congregation.  I have recommended a cautious approach to gathering physically. While I am aware that some of our members are eager to gather physically, many of our congregants fall into the category of vulnerable populations.  Even if we were to gather, many of the restrictions that we would need to maintain would make services both awkward and unfamiliar. Everyone attending would need to practice social distancing, wear facemasks, avoid singing, among other restrictions. Such a service would be alien in and of itself.  It is my recommendation that we continue virtual services since it is the safest way to come together at the current time.

If you would like to review the most recent guidelines for Houses of Worship, please go to this link COVID-Safe Practices for Reopening.  Scroll to pp. 28 and 29 to read the guidelines for Houses of Worship. 

Given the limitations over gathering, I tried to imagine what it would take to conduct a physical Torah reading using a scroll that would be safe and meaningful for the congregation on Shabbat mornings. I would be interested in your feedback about this thought experiment. To give me feedback, first read the guidelines above about gatherings in a House of Worship. Then read the steps I have listed below. Lastly let me know your feedback by writing to me at rdg@bnaiisrael-nm.org. I’ll share the responses in my next message.  

  1. We would need volunteer Torah Readers who would be willing to attend physically and prepare the reading of the Torah in a proper manner.
  2. The Torah readers would need to be willing to appear on a Zoom video stream on Shabbat.
  3. We would need to make a determination of how much the Torah portion could be read based on those who have the skills, the time to prepare, and ability to attend the synagogue. Perhaps we try this once a month and not every week, for instance doing it once a month.
  4. We would need at least two volunteers to serve as Gabbaim-to check the Torah reader and to call virtual aliyot. The Gabbaim would need to sit some distance from the Torah reading, not their usual places next to the Torah reader at the reading stand. 
  5. Between the Torah reader (or readers), the two Gabbaim, a computer operator, and myself we would have between 5-7 people. Obviously we need to consider the choreography carefully to do this safely.
  6. It is doubtful we could do the traditional processionals.
  7. We will need to have our designated prayer books and Humashim which we have to leave in a designated place for use only by one person.  We cannot rely on an usher to pass the books out randomly. 

Moving along,  imagine all the things we need to think about if we held High Holiday services.

The Covid Virus pandemic has turned our worlds upside down. It has altered our ritual practices to a profound degree. Rituals, especially religious ones, serve to order our world, to offer us predictable ways of organizing holiness. I fully appreciate how the virtual services we are doing could be unsatisfying to many. Yet, we are forced to adapt and create meaning even in this contorted way.

I leave you with a thought-provoking article written by my colleague, Rabbi David Wolpe, entitled “The Whole World is Sitting Shiva.”  He captures the weirdness and uncertainty of the moment we are in. Here is the LINK

This is a time that requires Sovlanut-patience and forbearance. I hope that each of us finds this quality as we navigate these difficult times.

Shalom,

Rabbi Dov Gartenberg