Last April, Passover and Easter were two of the first holidays to be interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Travel plans were called off, family gatherings cancelled, and Seders and other religious services and programming moved to new virtual means. Worship and celebration continued, but differently. Zoom and YouTube supplanted overflowing sanctuaries for our holiest occasions. It was unsettling, but also an awakening.
The pandemic taught us, or in some cases, reminded us, that flexibility has always been a hallmark of spiritual community. COVID forced many of us to re-form our cherished observances and bend traditions that have often felt rigid. It should not surprise us that in reimagining our rituals, we often found deeper meaning in them. For example, in synagogue the physical passing of the Torah scroll from generation to generation has been an important symbolic act in the celebration of bar and bat mitzvah (the religious maturation of young men and women).
But at the start of the pandemic, when authorities advised against the shared handling of ritual objects, Temple Emanu-El replaced the physical passing of the scroll with the sharing of words, asking parents, grandparents and siblings to offer a blessing – a message of wisdom and love – bestowing on the celebrant a deeper understanding of faith and family.
And at Christ Church the instantaneous birthing of virtual worship caused an examination of the meaning of “the real presence of Christ” in the Eucharist, or Communion, and brought front and center a conversation that had been simmering in emergent virtual expressions of Christian faith. Just where does the mystery at the heart of Christian worship and community reside? Does it require proximal physical relationship? When virtual is the only option, can allowances be made? The community adapted.
While some ritual changes were difficult, and even painful, COVID caused many of us to refocus on what lies beneath religious ritual: the connections we have to each other, and the ideals by which we hope to live our lives. These spiritual roots are so much more important than the traditional mechanics of the rituals themselves. Imagination and flexibility have afforded us moments not only beautiful and meaningful but in fact, more inclusive. Suddenly non-traveling grandparents and far-away family members and friends are more involved via Zoom. The larger community can now participate, sharing joy or sorrow or solidarity.
It is incumbent upon us to ensure that some of these new traditions stick for the long term, and that we keep on fostering greater participation, richer imagination, and deeper love for those within and even beyond our immediate communities.
Though the coronavirus brought the need for flexibility into sharper relief, evolution in religious practice is not new; it has always been a necessary response to changing realities. In Judaism it has been a requisite of survival since the days of the destruction of the first Temple. And evolution isn’t only an answer to tragedy or conflict. It’s also a response to emergent wisdom. Protestant Christians have experimented and adapted religious forms and structures for more than 500 years, while holding fast to central tenets found in ancient creeds. In recent decades all religions have been properly compelled to address our unfolding awareness of human diversity. Thoughtful traditions have become more embracing of the LGBTQ+ community, women in leadership, and interfaith unions.
Not long ago, many of today’s norms felt “heretical” to some. Now, we realize we have only just begun to explore what “inclusivity” requires of us. Serving humanity in an ever-changing world demands flexibility, and COVID showed us what is possible when compassion is our first priority and guiding principle.
Serving humanity in an ever-changing world demands flexibility, and COVID showed us what is possible when compassion is our first priority and guiding principle.
COVID opened our eyes to new possibilities of how we connect, who we include, where we find meaning, and how we nurture the love that inspires religious commitment. The logistics of where and when, how and with what tools, is actually less important than the motivation behind them. The last 12 months have caused us to step back and consider the meaning and purpose of our own spirituality, to decide what to hold on to, and what to let go. When it comes to faith, that type of thoughtfulness always leads to stronger convictions and deeper meaning.
Our friendship and engagement in these matters has been a blessing, confirming the wisdom of personal, professional and spiritual inclusion, and informs our hope for the deepening and broadening of our evolving faith traditions in the post-COVID future.
Rabbi Joshua M. Davidson is the Senior Rabbi of Temple Emanu-El of the City of New York. The Reverend Dr. Stephen P. Bauman is the Senior Minister of Christ Church of New York City. Together they chair A Partnership of Faith in New York City.