Photo Credit: The Association of Sages of the West in the Land of Israel on Facebook
The Association of Sages of the West in the Land of Israel

The Association of Sages of the West in the Land of Israel, established in 2018 by mostly Moroccan Orthodox rabbis as a bulwark against the extremist trends in religious Judaism, has come under severe criticism other liberal-minded Orthodox groups, for setting a dangerous precedence in their recent ruling on using video conferencing during the seder.

On Tuesday, the group, which includes several city rabbis, issued a halachic ruling which permits families to spend the upcoming seder night using ZOOM software, to allow an online video connection between family members who sit down for the seder in their separate homes. The rabbinic association had been asked to rule on using electricity to operate the videoconferencing program to overcome the coronavirus restrictions. They replied that in light of the situation, and assuming that the software is started prior to the holiday, it would be permitted just this one time.

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Rabbi Menachem Perl, chairman of the Zomet Institute, an Israeli high-tech non-profit organization specializing in IT equipment and electronic appliances designed to meet the requirements of Halakha, on Wednesday told Kipa: “This is a dangerous letter with which I wholly disagree. The concern is mainly the conclusions that may emerge from it. Already I’ve been hearing various reactions, for example, a young couple who wrote that their problem is solved and now they can have the Seder from home.”

Rabbi Pearl, like so many poskim since the dawn of the 20th century and the invention of the electric light bulb, is concerned with the slippery slope: the traditional Jewish public does not differentiate between a holiday and Shabbat, and between using solid state electronics and taking the car out for a spin. And there’s always the cultural issue: say you get to text and watch Netflix and clap to turn your lights on and off on Shabbat and yom tov – what would happen to that special Shabbat and yom tov feeling which separates them from the weekdays?

On the technical side, Rabbi Pearl raises a number of issues related to using Zoom on the seder night, which the sweet Sephardi rabbis did not mention: first, past the first 40 minutes, a Zoom call requires payment, and since the seder starts about 50 minutes after candle lighting, it’s a problem.

In addition, there are connectivity problems, and sometimes the broadcast stops, and as a result it can be expected that the adults or children around the seder table would try to mend it, thus stepping on a slew of Shabbat and holiday laws that have nothing to do with whether or not electricity constitutes fire.

Finally, let’s assume the Zoom session is taken care of ahead of the holiday, the connections are flawless and nothing requires mending – there’s still the problem of ending the session.

“When the elderly person wants to go to sleep, does he or she have the option to stop the broadcast, in order to have quiet? There was no answer to that, either,” Rabbi Pearl says.

It should be noted that the mission statement issued by the Association of Sages of the West in the Land of Israel says, among other things: “Sadly, the huge transformations taking place before our eyes, resulting in ideological struggles among all the parts of the nation, often times block every fresh, independent expression, never mind groundbreaking, because of threats or boycotts made by entities which trying to impose their own views exclusively.”

“We see this phenomenon as a terrible distortion of Torah,” the mission statement continues, “a violation of the dignity of the Torah, and the darkening of the vision of the people, and where will wisdom be found? (Job 28:12). We must find a cure for this disease (of religious thought tyranny – DI). We are convinced that the approach of Sephardi scholars, which is not yet prevailing in our public domain, offers the medicine that would bring us closer to forging this balm.”

Quite possibly so, but in ruling on using a complicated device on Shabbat and holiday, Orthodox poskim first invite experts to explain all the technical issues involved. Issuing a “one time” ruling based only on the desire to make the elderly shut-ins feel less isolated is a recipe for disaster. Which is why many of the rabbis who signed the letter have by Wednesday removed their signatures.

Obviously, now it’s time for Rabbi Pearl’s people at Zomet to come up with a gramma version of Zoom. Alternately, how about hiring an IT Shabbes goy to monitor those Zoom seders?

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