The New Normal: To Accept, To Reject, or To Embrace

The pandemic has changed the way we do many things. We meet differently, work differently, pray differently, celebrate occasions differently and experience our relationships differently.

Which of these changes will we reject, and which will we embrace as improvements and opportunities? Which will we resignedly accept as the new normal, and which will we go along with only for now, forced by current realities, while we await a speedy return to the old normal?

These are critical questions that we as individuals, families, organizations and communities must approach and grapple with intentionally. Our responses may determine whether the pandemic will prove to be a transformational event or a passing blip, a growth opportunity or a harmful blow.

But how do we address these questions? What are the Torah values and considerations that should inform our approach to change?

Balancing Creativity and Tradition
Orthodoxy is, by definition, conservative, yet it is, in fact, dynamic.  The Talmud1 famously notes that it is impossible for a beit midrash to convene without producing a chiddush (novel idea). Orthodox Talmudic training encourages even young students to go beyond collecting the ideas of previous generations of scholars by adding their own insights.

This creativity is not limited to the academic realm. In practice, Orthodoxy has instituted numerous innovations that were critical to its preservation and progress, including—but far from limited to—radical changes to the education system, such as the universal communal education mandate of Yehoshua ben Gamla, the creation of the paradigmatic modern-day yeshivah in Volozhin, and the models of formal women’s education initiated in nineteenth-century Germany and twentieth-century Poland.

Nevertheless, such innovations—whether academic or practical—are firmly rooted in tradition, as expressed elegantly in the Talmudic assertions, “Everything the worthy student will say to his teacher was already shared with Moshe at Sinai,”2 and “The practical innovations of future scholars were shown to Moshe at Sinai.”3

We root ourselves in tradition because our ultimate and unique gift as a nation was the revelation of Torah at Sinai. What we learned then through Moshe guides and shapes our lives, as it is our source of eternal truth and value. Our firm belief in the divinity and immutability of the Torah is such that there is no new revelation or insight that will ever surpass its word. And while at its core this belief affirms the eternity of the Written Torah and its received interpretation, the Oral Torah, halachic tradition extends essentially the same level of authority to the unchallenged statements made in the Mishnah and Talmud.4

Yet, as circumstances change, we are constantly charged with reacting to contemporary needs and challenges by creatively, sensitively and responsibly applying our eternal truths and values. A striking observation of the sixteenth-century halachist and philosopher Mabit (Rabbi Moshe ben Yosef di Trani, d. 1585) underscores the critical need for contemporary awareness in applying halachah’s eternal principles.

Mabit dwells on the Talmudic tradition that in Messianic times it will be Eliyahu the prophet, rather than Moshe the law-giver, who will resolve our halachic questions. He suggests that, as opposed to Moshe who has been gone from this world for centuries, residing in the world of the spirit, Eliyahu ascended to the heavens with both body and soul, and—according to tradition—maintains a frequent presence in this physical world, returning to communicate with great sages and to visit at every brit. Eliyahu’s ongoing familiarity with the world makes him far more suited to apply the Torah’s eternal principles to contemporary realities than Moshe, who has been disconnected from our physical world for so long.5

Clearly, we must apply halachah with both absolute fealty to the eternity of its principles and concomitant awareness of contemporary realities. This balance between creativity and tradition guides us to a more careful and mature integration of change, within and beyond halachic matters. First, it rejects change that would turn its back on eternal values. Second, by nature of its conservatism, it discourages hasty shifts following insufficient consideration and testing of new paths. And third, the tension between conservation and creativity encourages us to layer the new  added value upon our previously held values, building the new without demolishing the old.

This may provide the beginnings of a framework for addressing some of the many potential changes before us. For example, it is well-established in Talmudic and halachic sources and in national practice that a central element of communal infrastructure—one that all community members are obliged to participate in constructing—is the beit knesset, a dedicated structure that is to occupy a physically prominent place in the city and that is in great measure designed to replicate the Temple of old.6

This halachic institution embodies several core values that impact the contemporary debates about public prayer. The pandemic forced the temporary closure of our synagogues, creating a prolonged period of solitary prayer, prayer at home and small block minyanim. Many people found elements of these changes welcome, appreciating the opportunity to create their own pace, to pray within their homes and undistracted by others, or to pray with a more intimate and convenient quorum on their block. These are certainly appreciable and meaningful values and sensitivities.

We must never accept loss . . . with hopelessness or resignation.

Yet the halachic institution of the communal synagogue and the mandate for individuals to pray there7 imply different priorities. A dedicated House of God is favored over a private home or backyard; a communal shul where our King is glorified b’rov am (in the presence of a broad community) is preferred to multiple small minyanim; and the majesty of shared communal praise supersedes the intimacy of private prayer. Clearly, we must be mindful lest the sudden experience of the genuine advantages of a different mode or venue of prayer cause us to lose sight of the alternate advantages favored by halachah.  And while we mustn’t naively proceed as if this halachic declaration of principles will of itself silence the debate and end the potential trend of defections from communal shuls, we must work to address the deficiencies that the debate has exposed without abandoning timeless values.

Radical vs. Incremental Change
Change must be approached deliberately. We must avoid rushing to reject a lasting paradigm for a relatively untested model. Did all who embraced the pace and beauty of solitary prayer in the first weeks still experience those heady advantages weeks or months later?

In May, in the relatively early days of the virtual classroom, one state governor empaneled a blue-ribbon committee to reimagine education, going so far as to question the future need for school buildings. Yet, by the end of the school year Zoom fatigue had set in and virtual learning was declared a failure. We may similarly question the phenomenon of large companies rushing to divest themselves of their office space due to the apparent success of the virtual workplace. Might it be a bit too early to tell?

Many changes that initially appear wise and promising will not provide an enduring alternative. Thus, the Anshei Knesset Hagedolah, the Men of the Great Assembly, who presided over a critical transitionary period in Jewish life, offered as their first words of counsel that we be deliberate in our decision-making.8 Such caution is surely advised before instituting a radical shift.

But change need not be radical. Zoom may not be able to replace in-person schooling, but it can add value to the in-person experience by providing greater access to high-level instruction. And while our eternal values clearly guide us back to the shul, there remains much that ought to be retained from what we uncovered during the times we prayed away from shul. Perhaps adjustments in pace and rhythm of shul services are in order. As individuals we may choose to move our personal reading of Tehillim to our homes, where—without any halachic compromise—we can recite it with the intimacy and pace that we found so refreshing. And while we may have returned to shul for Kabbalat Shabbat, we can more intentionally join our families for zemirot (songs) that honor Shabbat, for recitation of Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs) or even for an encore of Lecha Dodi.  

“The young build by destroying; the old destroy by building.”9 Revolutionary change destroys what was there, and often fails to replace it. Wisdom dictates that we proceed with incremental improvements, engaging in a sustained process of building that will ultimately prove transformative.

Replace Grief with Hope
Our Sages were remarkably insistent on identifying significant added value even in our experience of loss. Thus, they spoke of the hidden treasure found behind the demolished walls of the leprous home.10 And, most remarkably, they wrote of the opportunity presented by galut (exile), where our dispersion allows us to reach the corners of the world as ambassadors of our faith.11

The premise of this attitude is that hope springs eternal, that history is a consistent march toward a better future such that even steps back are steps forward.

We must never accept change—or even outright loss—with hopelessness or resignation. In the words of Rabbi Tzadok Hakohen of Lublin:12

A Jew may not despair regarding anything, be it materialeven if the sword lies across his neck, or spiritualeven if he has sunken to sin in an area that seems irreparable . . . he must never say that he cannot break out of this, for there is no such thing as despair for a Jew, and God can assist in any situation. The Jewish nation was built after the total despair of Avraham and Sarah ever being able to have a child . . . purposely . . . so that this would become the essential character of the Jew, to believe that there is never room for despair.

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto13 identified this as the quality of Avraham that led to him being chosen by God. Though mankind had fallen dramatically from the lofty perch we had occupied before being banished from Eden, we could have potentially found our way back as we were not condemned to remain in that lowered state. Yet virtually all of humanity accepted their lowered status with a shrug. They had been chased from Paradise, and they did not look back. Only one person refused to be resigned to this new normal. Only one person recognized that the potential for return was there and he would not rest until he would be restored to Eden. That person was Avraham, the father of our people. It was that tenacity, the repudiation of a lesser version of normal, that led God to choose him, and therefore to choose us.

A Jew may not despair regarding anything. We must not resignedly accept a new lesser version of normal.

Embracing Revolutionary and Revelatory Change
There is a form of revolutionary change that we ought to embrace. This change is revolutionary yet not radical, simultaneously transformative and restorative. It is a change personified by the story of Yonah.

Yonah’s prophecy stated that the city of Nineveh would be overturned in forty days, and—as the Talmud14 teaches—the prophecy was precisely fulfilled. Nineveh was overturned. The Nineveh of the past was gone. A new city had arisen upon the ruins of the old. The people of Nineveh had chosen well. They had not waited for God to impose traumatic transformation; they instead embraced positive transformation.

The people of Nineveh literally took apart the buildings of the city, discarded the stolen bricks and put the rest back together again.15 They recognized the flaws in the original structure, and— while they had become accustomed to living in those homes—they eagerly dismantled them.  They had quite literally been living a lie. Turning away from the status quo was not going somewhere new and revolutionary; it was restoring them to their natural home, to truth and genuineness.

Teshuvah is the term we rightfully associate with the Nineveh story. It can be revolutionary without being radical or exhausting. It may not even involve discomfort and a drive to change but may come instead in the form of a revelation, a refreshing discovery of something that was always there but often overlooked. Indeed, the Maharal of Prague16 taught that the term “teshuvah” is chosen because it implies a return to our purer origins. Rather than adding responsibilities or creating radical new directions, it restores perspective, bringing us back to a place that is natural, comfortable and healing.

The pandemic has been dramatic. In many ways it has overturned our world. And it has given us perspective. Not new perspective but restored perspective. We have been granted the opportunity to see our relationships differently and our possessions differently; to value our connections more and our things less; to cherish both community and solitude.

The greatest revolution will have occurred if we embrace these revelations, if we solidly enshrine these perspectives as the drivers of our decisions and lifestyles.

We can take the initiative to emerge from this transformed. We may end up with basically the same shul, school and office. But we will have a different perspective, one that is natural and pure, which restores in both our minds and our actions the primary values of our lives and our faith, of family and of meaning.

That would be truly and beautifully revolutionary.

Notes
1. Chagigah 3a.

2. Yerushalmi Peiah 2:4.

3. Megillah 19b.

4. Kesef Mishneh, Hilchot Mamrim 2:1.

5. Beit Elokim Sha’ar HaYesodot, ch. 60.

6. Rambam, Hilchot Tefillah, ch. 11.

7. Berachot 8a; SA, Orach Chaim 90:11.

8. Pirkei Avot 1:1.

9. Nedarim 40a.

10. Rashi to Vayikra 14:34.

11. Pesachim 87b.

12. Divrei Sofrim, no. 16.

13. Derech Hashem 2:4:2-3.

14. Sanhedrin 89b.

15. Ta’anit 16a.

16. Netiv HaTeshuvah, ch. 2.

Rabbi Moshe Hauer is executive vice president of the Orthodox Union.

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This article was featured in the Winter 2020 issue of Jewish Action.
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