Sermon for Yom Kippur Morning 5781, 28th September 2020
Can God work through the internet? This is the question that is apparently dividing the Episcopalian Church in the United States. Dr. Diana Butler Bass, in a fascinating conversation with Rabbi Larry Hoffman earlier this year, described the controversy. It might seem an arcane theological point and Jews don’t usually get into such intense theological wrangles. But as Dr. Bass continued her talk, it became clear that there are real implications. What is virtual and what is real? For Christians, the question is of vital importance because it relates the to the question of whether Christians can receive communion, which is central to their faith. But for us, the question is more about where we can find God. Do we need to be in our Synagogue with our congregations or can we find God over the internet too? For Martin Buber, God is found through meeting. It an encounter, an ‘I - Thou’ moment when we see someone as a person, not an object or a means to an end. We encounter God when we encounter others through real meeting. Can we really meet when it is over Zoom and not in person, when we can’t look directly at one another but can only see them as a face on a screen?
Since we first went into lockdown we have had to find new ways of meeting. What seemed strange at first is now almost normal. We yearn for human contact, to be able to greet and hug each other. But at the same time, in my congregation and I’m sure in yours too, our members feel real joy at seeing each other’s faces, being able to greet each other and catch up on news as well as joining together in prayer.
Our Sidra tells us, ‘Lo bashamayim hi…’ God’s teaching is not in heaven. It is not over the sea. It is very near to us, in our mouths and in our hearts, that we may do it.’ We can find God’s teaching within us. It is accessible to each of us wherever we are, when we choose to listen to our hearts and choose our words, and to live in a godly way.
Covid has not changed that. We can still find God whenever we seek God. The Kotzker rabbi was asked, ‘Where does God dwell?’. He replied, ’God is where we let God in.’ When we open ourselves up to experience God, to listen to God’s teaching and to hear the answers to our prayers, we can find God with us. We are used to going to our Synagogues to find God. But we have discovered that we can find God in our virtual Synagogues too. The rabbis were distraught at the destruction of the Temple, fearing that the centre of Judaism was lost. But they found God in other ways. They developed the Synagogue and they found ways to meet God in the home. They called the home the ‘mikdash m’at’, the small sanctuary. In the words of Lionel Blue: ‘The father became a priest, the mother a priestess, and the dining-room table an altar. The furniture of the Temple from the Holy of Holies came to rest beside the salt cellar, the mustard pot and the sauce bottle. The candles, the clothes, the white of the tablecloth brought the holiness and mystery of tremendous events into the surroundings of daily life.’
In the absence of the Synagogue, we have been forced to rediscover the home as our small sanctuary. But we have been granted the additional blessing which the rabbis could never have imagined, of linking home to home, even when those homes are on opposite sides of the earth.
God created human beings with the ability to invent technology. Judaism has never viewed science and technology as evil. It may have the potential for evil but it can also bring great good. At this time, we have every reason to be thankful for technology for it has enabled us to come together and be part of our communities. It has also enabled us to feel part of our larger Liberal community, to join with other synagogues as we are doing today, in a way those of us unfamiliar with technology could not have imagined even a year ago. So can God work through the internet? I would affirm with Dr. Diana Butler Bass that it can. To paraphrase the Kotzker rabbi, God works in whatever way we let God work. The internet is not ideal. Once we moved out of the initial period of lockdown and started meeting people in person again, we realised once more how much human contact meant. One day, we will be able to meet in our now empty Synagogue buildings. We will be able to embrace one another and talk face to face. But in the meantime, we will continue to find God in meeting each other over the internet and joining together in prayer.
On this Yom Kippur, may we find real meeting. May we open ourselves to God’s teaching, in our mouths and our hearts. And through those teachings, may we be blessed with life and strength to face whatever this year may bring.