CAN YOU MEET GOD ON ZOOM?
SHULES IN THE TIME OF COVID
Can You Meet God On Zoom?
Esau McCaulley is an assistant professor of New Testament at Wheaton College. He wrote an op ed for the NYT entitled, “You Can’t Meet God Over zoom”. In the article he writes about how unsatisfying the experience of Zoom services are.
Kids who are reluctant to go to live services certainly do not want to attend a digital version. The socializing, the participation especially the singing are a hollow version of the live service, especially if you are in a black church that W.E.B. Dubois describes as “the preacher, the music, and the frenzy.” For those of you who watched Sister Act with Whoopee Goldberg you know what he was talking about. Indeed, that served as my search filter when I looked all over the world for a better way to daven and came back with the Friday night Carlebach service. But Professor McCaulley points out what I too experienced repeatedly in 40 years in the pulpit. People get excited, they plateau and then often drop out. As he writes,
“Everyone who has come to follow a religion knows of the initial season of zeal. People are excited and energetic about their newfound faith: the services seem transcendent. But that feeling often fades and becomes something else.”
Some people come to big church spaces to encounter God on earth. Others hope in the fellowship of friends and fellow travelers that they will find the presence of God amongst them. That surely fails on Zoom and frankly it fails in most physical church- synagogue spaces. McCaulley says that in the Covid era he has learned, “that religious services, by their very nature cannot fulfill what they promise. Services attempt to usher finite people into the presence of someone we believe to be infinite. What hymn or service can capture that? We are chasing the wind. There are fits and starts, hints of something at the edge of our perception, but not the thing itself.”
So why does he still attend church?
He says it is his way of offering something to God. It is a small rebellion to show there is more to life than acquiring things. It is an attempt to become people of kindness who live lives of charity and service. He writes, “We are attempting to encounter God, and in so doing, find ourselves, possibly for the first time.”
If I can be so bold as to translate that into Jewish speak, we go to shule to encounter God and follow His mitzvot and in so doing bring Chesed and Tzedaka into the world. It sounds great but I don’t think that is the experience of most Jews including observant Jews. I believe it leaves out two important functions that make shule work at least for the people for whom the following works.
The first is fellowship. Ahavat Yisrael, the loving of our fellow Jews, especially the ones we fight with all week. In the secular world our fellowship is defined as outsiders. The gentiles call us Jews and lump us together and in response we feel a bond, perhaps a fellowship of outsiders, a connection we experience as negative.
Every antisemitic taunt, every joke about our acumen in making money, every reference to our proboscis is a reminder that to many in the outside world we are different. It does not matter how far you go to isolate yourself you will be caught and placed back into the group. Ask George Soros. So, we exist in a connection of necessity that others have defined, but on shabbat in shule I am with self-defined Jews who gather out of pride and connection and a sense of a historical connection that goes back to God and our forefathers.
In the street I am one of “those” Jews, in shule I am the son of Abraham our father, who covenanted with God. In shule is where I want to mix and be Jewish. Shule is where I want to make a lechayim with my shule friends and down a single malt. Sure, I can pray at home, but in shule I am with my homies.
The other thing that is different for us as Jews is what the prayers are supposed to do for us. For years I struggled with why there were so many prayers of praise to God. If God was God, why does He need my praise?
In a crisis of course I can and will pray to God. If I am desperate enough I will pray to anybody or anything. But in the relative tranquility where most of my life is lived, why all these prayers of praise?
One day I had a revelation, better still I had an understanding. God doesn’t need to know about His power, His Glory, His majesty, I do!
I need to know how He has always been there, that His compassion is all encompassing even as He is a Divine Judge. I need to repeat all His accolades in the presence of others who also say and believe it, to convince me that if I was going to reach out to something greater than me, that it is there and worth it. And what convinces us more, regarding something that we have our doubts about, than the positive feedback of our peers who tell us to trust in God?
Shule is where the religious influencers can be found. There are millionaires on Instagram whose entire fortune comes from the fact that we believe them and follow their suggestions. People do not necessarily buy a brand of jeans because they like them more than some other pair, but because they follow influencers that they like, who guide their choices. People still have free will, but they choose to be guided by their chosen influencers.
If I need a good doctor, a medical specialist, a lawyer or accountant, chances are I will ask certain people I respect or feel that they are “connected”, or in the know, and they will recommend a good choice that I can “BELIEVE’ in.
Shule is where I go to meet these people and have them guide me to God. Praying to God is easy once we understand the majesty of God and why we are worthy to connect with Him. Most prayers just prepare us emotionally for the ask that will inevitably follow from our hearts. We just needed to know He existed, and we were worthy of Him.
I want to take this opportunity to wish everyone a happy and healthy secular new year during which we will find the “normalcy” we so desperately crave. When we can hug kids and grandkids, travel around the world and end up shabbat morning in our favorite shules with our favorite Jews over our favorite single malts.
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