When I was asked to blog the convention, I found it really, really funny. Frankly, I still do. Sure, I Facebook, I blog, but those just feel like digital versions of what I do already. The blog is a bulletin article–a more interactive one to be sure, but similar in nature. Facebook is a 24/7 Oneg conversation: “Rabbi, there’s this article I saw…” “did you know so-and-so is in the hospital?” “Did you hear this joke?”
So the Freehof Institute seminar on Halacha and the Internet was of great interest to me, especially because of the eagerness on the part of rabbis and our congregants to use technology and the questions they raise. Does someone watching a live-stream service count in the minyan? And is it ethical or appropriate to even have a live-streamed service? How does our connectivity effect or ability to observe Shabbat or make sacred time for ourselves? Does that technology enhance or detract from the Shabbat experience.
Sadly, I was only able to hear the first two papers, but they raised great questions and important nuances. For the live-streaming of services, for example, there are compelling reasons to broadcast the worship of a congregation, not the least of which is bikkur cholim: a homebound congregant, the ill grandmother of a bar mitzvah who can’t travel. And, there is precedent in the tradition for the online viewer to be considered yotzei through their participation (though they wouldn’t count as a 10th member of the minyan). However, what questions does it raise about copyright permission with regards to the liturgies and music being used? What about the permission of the worshippers (or lack thereof) to be photographed? And how does the presence of the camera change the service? Does tech support impugn the ability to lead a meaningful service for the congregation? And what happens if the service ends up on YouTube, especially if there’s something on the video embarrassing to one of the participants? All of these questions need to be tackled before just jumping at the chance to broadcast to the world.
The second part of the seminar–on connectivity and Shabbat–requires an equally nuanced view. Does technology add oneg and kedusha? For some, perhaps: the use of Skype to talk to grandma, or the ability for a worshiper to share his inspired feelings from a service on Facebook (at NFTY convention this year the participants were encouraged to tweet services, for example). But what if it’s the inability to put down Angry Birds at the cost of time spent with family. And of course, what about us, for whom Shabbat is already a ‘busman’s holiday': does our need (real or imagined) to be on and available all the time make technology and even greater temptation to work when we should be enjoying some much-needed menucha?
As the presenters left the questions unanswered so shall I, but it’s worth asking the questions as we move toward ‘teching’ up our Jewish experiences more and more.