Friday, May 30, 2008

Masechet Cyberspace #8 - Can You Count in a Minyan Online?

The official position of the Rabbinical Assembly can be found in full here, and the conclusions are as follows:

1. A minyan may not be constituted over the Internet, an audio- or video-conference, or any other medium of long distance communication. Only physical proximity, as defined, that is being in the same room with the shaliah tzibbur (prayer leader), allows a quorum to be constituted.

2. Once a quorum has been duly constituted, anyone hearing the prayers being offered in that minyan may respond and fulfill his or her obligations thereby, even over long distance communications of whatever sort.

(a) Some would refrain from fulfilling the specific requirement to hear the shofar in this way, due to its specific nature, but others permit. This committee is on record among those who would allow even the hearing of Shofar in this way.

3. This specifically refers to hearing. A real-time audio connection is necessary. Two-way connection to the whole minyan is preferable, though connection to the shaliah tzibbur alone or a one way connection linking the minyan to the individual are sufficient. E-mail and chat room or other typewritten connections do not suffice. Video connections are not necessary, and in the absence of audio would not suffice.

4. A clear hierarchy of preference is discernible here. It is preferable by far to attend a minyan, for the full social and communal effect of minyan for which it was established is only possible in that way. Less desirable, but closest to attendance at a minyan proper, is real-time two-way audio-video connection, wherein the individual, though unable to reach the other minyonnaires, is able to converse with them and see and be seen by them. Only in rare or exigent circumstances should one enact the third, and least desirable, method of fulfilling one.s obligation to pray with a minyan by attaching oneself to that minyan through a one-way audio vehicle, essentially overhearing them as one standing outside the synagogue.

5. With regard to Mourner’s Kaddish, some member of the minyan must recite the kaddish, but a participant at a distant location may recite it along with him or her, as this is not considered a superfluous blessing (__!_______). There is no obligation to pursue additional opportunities to recite kaddish, and this should be discouraged.

6. To fulfill time-bound obligations, the prayers must be offered during the requisite period in the frame of reference of the one whose obligation is to be fulfilled.

The topic is a fascinating one, and as technologies improve and Jews disperse across the globe even more, it will surely be revisited again and again. What defines a community at prayer? What defines a community at all?

An article in article in the Jerusalem Post calls for 600,000 Jews to gather virtually on Facebook. Undoubtedly many more than 600,000 Jews are on there now! But if, as it is said, 600,000 were at Sinai to receive the Torah, and yet, in some virtual manner all the rest of us were as well, how is that different from online presence? We, who can testify to Sinai’s revelation but only from having been there “virtually,” can also attend our own synagogues virtually, no?

Well, no. While the power of a virtual visit can be extraordinary ( as we see in online prayer circles and CaringBridge), nothing can match the power of schlepping out of bed in the morning and being at a service to lend comfort or reaffirm hope. And it’s also just a great place to schmooze. In the words of my teacher, rabbi Neil Gillman, “the “schtibel” (study hall) served the Jewish male in the same way the corner bar served the Irish male — i.e., as an escape from the family, an opportunity to bond with other men, exchange gossip, do business and discuss politics.” What was once true for men only has now expanded vastly. In fact, at yesterday’s minyan, I was one of only three men there (which is not the norm) among over a dozen woman.

But we do use the Internet often now as a tool for getting a minyan, such TBE’s Rosner Minyan Maker and our “Guaranteed Minyan” e-mails. And as we begin interfacing much more visually through Skype and other tools, we may find the argument for online minyans, at least in some circumstances, more compelling.

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