Micro-communities and Prayer

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October 2, 2011
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Dan Medwin

Can ten or more Jews pray together via the Internet? Is it halakhic? Is it “good” for the Jews? Interpretations of talmudic and halakhic sources have been presented to both support and refute this form of prayer.1 Rabbi Avram Reisner wrote a teshuvah that was approved by the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS), which balances tradition with modernity, concluding that those who join a minyan through communication technology (e.g., voice or video) may fulfill their own prayer obligation thereby, but can not count toward the requisite quorum of ten.2 Since this conclusion affirms the authenticity of a digital prayer experience, why wouldn’t the rabbinic body allow ten or more Jews to gather together using similar means from different locations and share an authentic prayer experience?

The CJLS teshuvah suggests that the early rabbis mandated a minyan in order to build community.3 Being present in the same physical space strengthens our connections to and compassion for one another; it becomes a foundation of community. For much of history, individuals rarely traveled far from home, and every aspect of their community was defined geographically. Today, however, each individual is a member of a diverse array of micro-communities, some predicated upon physical proximity, and others upon shared interests.

If one can be a member of a prayer community that gathers in the same physical space, while also being a member of a shared-interest community online, can we flip the equation and assert that one can be a member of a prayer community online and be physically present for another type of community? Is it important why we gather?

American Jewish author Harry Golden wrote in one of his stories that when he was young, he asked his father a question: “If you don’t believe in God, why do you go to synagogue so regularly?” His father answered, “Jews go to synagogue for all sorts of reasons. My friend Garfinkle, who is Orthodox, goes to talk to God. I go to talk to Garfinkle.”4

Some Jews don’t go to shul to pray; they go to join community. Today, there is a renaissance of Jewish venues for being in community around common interests other than prayer. Jews gather regularly to discuss Torah or ecology, to hike or bake together, or to appreciate Jewish music or art — each of which has its own spiritual dimension.

Those who find meaning in online prayer communities likely did not find community in the physical prayer spaces accessible to them. Perhaps they are unable to physically join a community because they are homebound — due to illness or disability — or hospitalized, or living in a rural area in which there is a small or non-existent Jewish community. For these reasons alone, online prayer should be encouraged and cultivated.

More important, online prayer represents a creative engagement with Jewish life that utilizes contemporary social tools, continuing our tradition of adopting the technology around us, from the parchment scroll to bound and printed books. In every age, we strive to make the old new and the new holy.

While I believe that ultimately people who find meaning and connection in online prayer should be encouraged to gather online, we must not neglect the importance of gathering in shared physical space. This cannot be understated. Anyone who identifies with or feels an obligation toward the Jewish people must strive to find, wherever possible, avenues and opportunities for being present with other Jews. And yet, our sense of community grows ever wider, and today we have amazing opportunities to erase physical distance and pray with Jews all over the world.

1 Rabbi Avram Israel Reisner, “Wired to the Kadosh Barukh Hu: Minyan via Internet,” (New York: March 13, 2001). Michael Sabani, “In Defense of the Online Minyan,” http://punktorah.org/news/in-defense-of-the-online-minyan

2 Rabbi Avram Israel Reisner, “Wired to the Kadosh Barukh Hu: Minyan via Internet,” (New York: March 13, 2001), conclusions one and two.

3 Rabbi Avram Israel Reisner, “Wired to the Kadosh Barukh Hu: Minyan via Internet,” (New York: March 13, 2001), “subsection: “Several Philosophical Considerations”

4 As retold by Rabbi Harold Kushner in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York: Schocken Books, 1981), p. 122.

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Rabbi Dan Medwin is the Publishing Technology Manager of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. He is involved in the creation and implementation of electronic publishing including Visual T’filah (www.visualtfilah.com) for Jewish organizations, synagogues, rabbis, and members of the Jewish community. He is also working actively on the first Reform Jewish prayer book app, and serves as technology advisor and consultant for Reform rabbis. Medwin is regularly inspired and challenged by his wife, Rabbi Lydia Bloom Medwin, and their one year-old daughter, Zimra.

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