Can you have a virtual minyan? Halachic authorities are unanimous: the answer is no. You cannot count a minyan of people who are separated geographically but connected through technology. The reason is simple: a minyan must consist of people who are together in the same room. And no matter how closely connected people may feel through chatrooms or Skype, they are not actually together.
The conventional wisdom has been that social networking is dumbing down our ability to have actual social connections. We are scared to death by images of young people sitting at computers “chating” with friends they’ve never met instead of spending time with their actual friends. I’ve seen it myself: at a recent youth group dance, a room full of teenagers stood texting people who weren’t there, instead of talking with the people standing right next to them.
But let’s not be so quick to lament human contact’s death-by networking. Technology can also be a very powerful force for bringing people together. Take, for example, a recent snowball fight on the streets of Washington. On December 19, an impromptu snowball fight broke out at 14th and U. More than 200 people came, spurred mostly by tweets (Twitter updates) that they received in that moment. 200 people! From Twitter! For a snowball fight! No other medium known to humankind could bring together so many people so quickly.
So what does this mean for the Jewish world? Well first of all, we need to work at harnessing the power of virtual social networking to create actual social connections. The more that Twitter, blogging, Facebook, and texting are part of our arsenal, the better we will appeal to young people for whom these are second nature. (And I count myself in that number.) Imagine if we could use Twitter to bring together 200 people – or even 20 people – for an impromptu Jewish happy hour, or a morning minyan, or a rally in support of Israel.
Secondly. The question of virtual minyan aside, let’s not forget the power of technology to bring prayer and learning to those who are unwilling or unable to walk through the doors of the shul. My congregation, Temple Beth El, has been broadcasting its High Holiday services on the internet for several years, and we have seen both anecdotally and statistically that people use and appreciate it. Now only do we get emails from people in Canada, Europe, and Antarctica (!) who were watching, but last year, our website got thousands of hits that day. Clearly somebody was watching. More recently, we’ve started recording how-to videos for holiday and Shabbat blessings. A congregation in Cincinnati has taken it a step further, by creating a virtual synagogue. OurJewishCommunity.org styles itself as “21st century Jewish experience that meets people where they are” by offering live, streaming services where people can chat, tweet, and write in to announce that they are watching.
The problem is, it’s still virtual. Watching rabbis say blessings online is not quite the same as being in the room. Singing along with the YouTube video is not quite like singing with people sitting next to you. Sharing, embedding, and tweeting are not quite the same as chatting at the oneg. And people know it. Those who crave social connections – and that’s most of us who go to shul on a regular basis – are not going to be satisfied by techno-solutions.
So the good news is, I don’t think synagogues are in any danger of being replaced by websites. But synagogues do need to learn how to harness these important tools in order to bring real Judaism to real Jews – both actually and virtually.
So what do you think? Is technology/social networking good or the Jews, or is it killing the soul of Judaism? Let us hear from you!