Updated: Jun 15, 2020
Faith leaders must deliver messages of hope to anxious and lonely worshippers
Tue, Jun 9, 2020, 01:00
In March 2020, as our preoccupation with coronavirus began to gather momentum, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth, predicted that the pandemic would become “the moment of all moments for faith communities. What we are seeing is that faith communities are being judged not by what they believe but what they do”.
On a personal level, Rabbi Sacks stated how he draws great inspiration from the verse in Psalm 23: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, yet will I fear no evil, for You are with me.”
Synagogues in Ireland and around the world have seen huge increases in the numbers attending prayer services by Zoom
For Jews, as for people from other religious traditions, gathering together for worship is at the heart of what is meant by a community of faith. Restrictions imposed by Government to help overcome the pandemic have been sorely tested, with places of worship closing their doors to the public.
As a response to Government restrictions on public gatherings, religion has moved online, and worshippers have followed. Synagogues in Ireland and around the world have seen huge increases in the numbers attending prayer services by Zoom. In Jewish tradition, one does not need to be in a synagogue in order to pray. Prayer at home has always been a feature of Jewish life, and this may have made it easier for Jews to accept having services streamed to their computers and mobile phones.
Judaism is a touchy-feely faith. There is a lot of hugging, both at weddings and at funerals.
Jewish faith leaders have had to tell their congregations that while it is understandable to want to physically express sympathy or joy, today this is no longer possible.
Everyone must now focus on finding new ways of expressing love to fellow congregants, family and friends. In times of national crisis, such as war, it is natural for people to look to the country’s political and military leadership for inspiration and guidance. Likewise, in times of health crisis such as the current pandemic, people of faith look to political and health leadership for direction while also seeking spiritual guidance from their religious authorities.
This places an important responsibility on faith leaders who must help bridge the gap between theology and science. Inevitably conspiracy theories abound, and great care must be taken to avoid spreading fake news and unintentionally passing on misinformation to explain causes behind the pandemic. The role of leaders in faith communities is to deliver messages of hope to worshippers struggling with anxiety, loneliness and despair.
One common theme for sermons of the three Abrahamic faiths is that the virus has come as a reminder that we are not in control. Responsible faith leaders are telling their communities that the disease is not some sort of punishment. People always look for meaning and answers in a time of uncertainty and fear. Faith leaders need to deliver the message that everybody is personally responsible for preventing the spread of the coronavirus, and for reaching out to less fortunate members of the community.
It is most important that frontline medical staff and other essential workers know just how much the work that they do is appreciated. There can be no doubt that the pandemic has heightened everyone’s awareness of those who are having to face lockdown alone. Many faith communities have responded magnificently to the challenge.
For example, Dublin’s Jewish community is operating a virtual TV channel via Zoom with talks, yoga, prayer services, classes, music, quizzes, entertainment and guest speakers (including Taoiseach Leo Varadkar).
Many people in the community – especially those in the so-called vulnerable category – claim that the daily community chat has proved to be a comfort, an anchor, and a really important lifeline. As Rabbi Sacks said, the faith communities will be judged not by what they believe but what they do.
Hilary Abrahamson is chair of the Dublin City Interfaith Forum and chair of Rites and Practices with the Dublin Jewish Progressive Congregation.