Elul in Isolation


First there was Shabbos. What were we to do without shuls, without friends and family at Shabbat meals, without the spiritual and intellectual nourishment of Shabbat Torah and Talmud classes?

Then came Pesach. The extended family seder? Not a chance. For some, Zoom seders. (Ever tried singing as a group on Zoom?)

All of these pale when we think about the months of Elul and Tishrei, about building up to the High Holy Days, about Rosh HaShanah, a supremely communal event highlighted by the blowing of the shofar and by the extended Mussaf service.

And finally about Yom Kippur. Communal prayer nonpareil throughout the day, culminating in the closing moments of the day, the Neilah service, the crying out, as a community, “Adonai hu HaElohim!” — “God is The Lord!” — then the shofar blast, calling an end to the day and permitting us to engage in the activities of the new year.   

The penitential season — intense personal introspection mandated in a communal setting. What will it be like in this plague year?

To scholar and author Rivkah Teitz Blau, the procession from Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur “is the build-up — the pent-up energy — of communal tension and community feeling. The idea of kehillah, community, is central to us. The very term that we use for ‘holiday’ — mo’ed — has the meaning of coming together.”

Jewish public affairs analyst Marc Stern is of two minds on the question of High Holiday isolation. On the one hand, he agrees that the absence of a congregational setting, whatever the movement, will be dreadful. (“Zooming” the service may work for some in the non-Orthodox world — but, asks Stern, “How do you Zoom a six-hour service?”)

At the same time, he suggests that isolation “will generate its own atmosphere of introspection.” Stern offered his view that the Orthodox — and he is part of that community — “in reducing all sin to personal sin (a legacy of the Mussar movement), has not done a great job.”  The Conservative and Reform branches, he says, “with an emphasis on political as well as personal sin, have done better. Perhaps isolation offers an opportunity for individuals to expand their penitential horizons. But even with this, lack of community on Yom Kippur is inconceivable.”

Rabbi Yosef Blau of Yeshiva University, who has for decades been a keen observer of trends in American and Israeli Orthodoxy, agreed.  “The whole structure of Yom Kippur — the culmination of the High Holiday experience — is based on having a communal experience, the idea being that it is the communal that enhances, indeed enables, the personal.”

“[Isolation] is inconceivable,” he declared. For Rosh HaShanah, “anyone can learn to blow the shofar. That doesn’t work on Yom Kippur.”

Michael Strassfeld, who was an architect of the Havura movement and is the rabbi emeritus of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (SAJ), the flagship of the Reconstructionist movement, starts with the most intense of the intensely personal, with the question that for many is the grimmest moment in the Yamim Nora’im (“Days of Awe”) experience.    

“Mi yichye u-mi yamut?!” (“Who shall live and who shall die?!”) asks the Machzor, the High Holiday prayer book. This stark and profound question, a central moment in the service of both Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, “will have a different resonance in isolation,” suggests Strassfeld. “Isolation could compel people to be more focused on the core messages and existential questions of the penitential season.”

But Strassfeld, as do others, emphasizes the centrality of community in expressing the spiritual.

“The idea of sitting with others,” he says, “hearing other voices, even in the silent portions, the Amidah, of the service, is a transcendent experience. It is one thing to miss Shabbos in community. But Yom Kippur? Not the least [problem with a Zoom gathering] is the impossibility of singing together.” Additionally, muses Strassfeld, is the problem of the service itself. “The service is long. Rosh HaShanah is six hours. Yom Kippur is all day. There will be internal pressure to shorten the service.”  And Zoom is not the answer. “‘Streaming’? Prayer is challenging; streaming is passive.”

Finally, notes Strassfeld, “For those who don’t have the commitment: ‘Why am I doing this?’”

Rabbi Danny Nevins, dean of the Rabbinical School at the (Conservative) Jewish Theological Seminary of America, agreed with Strassfeld on the possibility that isolation may be beneficial: “The separation could in fact intensify the experience. It’s the long tradition of hitbobedut — intense personal spiritual separation.” But, bemoans Nevins, “The loss will be terrible,” and the Conservative movement is exploring paths consistent with halacha that might enable technologies for remote services.

Rabbi Rolando Matalon of B’nai Jeshurun, a progressive synagogue with Conservative roots on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, takes the long view. “The spiritual work has to be done in a different way this year, beginning from Elul — the very beginning of the penitential season and a full month before Rosh HaShanah — and ending with Hoshana Rabba at the end of Sukkot. We miss the intensity of the kehilla — the community — but we will make up for it by bringing all of our resources to bear: kavanot, intense spiritual moments; classes, and the like. We need to equip people to be able to stand by themselves before Hashem [God].” Plus, says Rabbi Matalon, “The few external distractions can lead us to greater internal introspection.”

As for me, I am with Michael Strassfeld. The moment for me of the High Holiday service is “Mi yichye u-mi yamut?” — “Who shall live and who shall die?!” — cried out three times during this season. This iteration of creature-consciousness takes me beyond the rational, beyond even the existential, into wholly uncharted territory. It’s intensely personal, yes — but it is truly about community.

And for historian Rabbi Shaul Seidler Feller, a regular at a charedi synagogue in Manhattan: “Yes, it’s uncharted territory. But I will stand before The Creator by myself. God will not be distant. I will not be alone.” 

Jerome A. Chanes, a regular contributor, is the author of four books on Jewish public affairs and history.