As of March 14, New York City’s Shearith Israel synagogue—America’s oldest Jewish congregation—suspended Sabbath services due to the pandemic. This is the first time that services have been canceled since 1776, when the congregants fled Manhattan ahead of the advancing British army. Its rabbi, Meir Soloveichik, contemplates the current situation and what it means for Jews’ religious and communal life:
The Hebrew term for synagogue is Beit Knesset, a house of gathering, and it is called so because, in the rabbinic tradition, the phrase Knesset Yisrael refers to the mysterious bonds that connect Jews to one another. A synagogue is not merely a physical gathering of individuals, but rather, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik explained, it reflects “an invisible Knesset Yisrael, which embraces not only contemporaries, but every Jew who has ever lived.” The synagogue is meant to embody this bond, this connection to all Jews past and present. But there are other ways to experience it.
Loneliness and aloneness [according to Joseph Soloveitchik], are different phenomena. Contemporary Western man, [when not in the midst of a pandemic], is physically surrounded by people. But that does not mean that he has covenantal communion with people. Contemporary man goes to parties, bars, coffee shops, stores; he tweets with likeminded political partisans or communicates on Facebook with his many thousands of “friends.” He is not alone. But he lacks true spiritual communion. And so, lonely he remains.
Human beings have an innate need to be among others, but now we are seeing a kind of antisocial social mixing, when we are constantly [connected to] people with whom we have no bond. The only true remedy to loneliness is in a covenant, not only the covenant of marriage, but the larger covenant of faith. There, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik writes, “not only hands are joined, but experiences as well; . . . one lonely soul finds another soul tormented by loneliness and solitude yet unqualifiedly committed.”
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