As most of our Temple members were aware, after a few weeks of having our Shabbat services conducted in an otherwise empty sanctuary while live-streaming on Facebook, one of our young teens thought it might lift my spirits to have photographs of Temple members and families taped to the empty pews. Looking out into the sanctuary, I saw the faces of people I care about, who are integral to the life of the Temple (and therefore to my life as well); photographs of those whose stories intersect with my own, and whose physical absence was made a bit less jarring while knowing that their personalities and spirits still filled the room. Looking out even to the photographs reminded me of the many relationships which make synagogue and community life truly vital and meaningful.
One night, I considered how my experience of photos in the pews was in stark contrast to the cardboard cutouts which are filling many seats in the otherwise empty grandstands in ballparks and arenas around the country. Similar are those animated avatars we see in some of the venues, such as in the NBA “bubble” in Orlando. The players in the field or on the court cannot and do not relate to those cutouts because they are not reflective or expressive of genuine relationships. They are simply “made for TV,” or at best, there to create an artificial sense of gathering — the antithesis of how Jon Nelson (our music director) and I experienced the photos in our pews.
In the aftermath of the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, one of the most important works of Jewish philosophy was published by Martin Buber, “I and Thou” (1923). Buber never speaks of the epidemic as having had a role in inspiring his work, but following a time of even greater social isolation than we have been facing over the past half-year during our own COVID-19 epidemic, there is sufficient cause to perceive the connection. In his work, Buber asked how we, with the latest technologies, might learn to promote — not the acquisition of information — but the ability to feel connected, at a time when we feel more alienated one from another. For within and between those relationships, which Buber taught to be “inter-subjective connections,” is where we discover the Presence of the Divine, the Sacred, the Holy that we call by God’s Name.
In his writings, Buber distinguishes those rare, elevated relationships which he terms “I/Thou” from the more mundane (and far more common) relationships which he terms “I/It.” I could describe his teaching using his own philosophic language, but perhaps a more graphic example would be the difference between your photos in the pews and those cardboard cutouts in the stands.
Although our strategies are different, I believe that all our communal institutions and leaders are looking to find the best ways to maintain the “I/Thou” experience of our Jewish lives. I am certain that rabbis, cantors, educators, staff and lay leaders are all striving toward that end, even while we might make different decisions on how best to achieve it. For some, it means pre-recording worship, streaming meetings on Zoom, and learning together from our own homes and offices. For others, achieving the experience of true connection has led us to broadcast services live from our sanctuaries or from our homes. As I have written before, I prefer broadcasting services “remotely” — live from the sanctuary — rather than “virtually,” as in a pre-recorded production. But I see the advantages of both.
A young author, Marina Keegan (who tragically died at the age of 22) wrote this thought shortly before her passing:
“We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life. It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community: it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together … who are on your team.”
In years to come, when the pandemic has passed, I believe we will experience the depth of our most meaningful connections to an even higher degree than before the pandemic began. In the meanwhile, it is my hope that as we enter the season of our New Year, that we are yet blessed with the authentic relationships, even remotely, which make all of life both meaningful and holy.
Rabbi David J. Meyer is senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead.