Ani Po? (I am here?)

And not with you alone do I seal this covenant and this oath, but with him who is here standing with us this day before G-d and with him who is not here with us this day.

Deuteronomy 29:14

It’s about time that I write about this article, the New York Times piece that lauds the emergence of online Bar Mitzvah studies. A lot of really smart, dedicated, interested (and interesting) people have weighed in on this, so I’m a little self-conscious about doing so myself. But at the same time The Edible Torah focuses on helping people build a connection to the Torah narrative and Jewish life in general, so I think my perspective counts.

My perspective is… that I have mixed feelings about the whole thing.

Unfortunately, those mixed feelings are the kind where I’ve got something obnoxious to say to each side, rather than finding a common middle ground where we can all join hands and sing “Mah Tovu”.

Bar Mitzvah Bashing

First, I find the majority of the article to be utter garbage. From the focus on cost as the justification for having/not having/joining/not joining to the impression that a Bar/Bat Mitzvah must be some herculean undertaking on the part of both the family and celebrant it gives an incredibly skewed view of Jews, Judaism and this specific lifecycle event.

Of course there are people just like the ones profiled in the article and I don’t mean people who would use the internet for learning. I mean families that agree with the quote in the article:  “Joining a synagogue? I looked at it, and there would have been no bat mitzvah,“.

Sure, that family wasn’t unique, but why choose to highlight such a small demographic?

And why emphasize what a hassle it is to belong to a congregation, go to synagogue and learn about Judaism? Let’s be honest: it’s not any more of a hassle than it is to drag our kids (and ourselves) to – and participate in – other activities like soccer practice or band rehearsals or debate club meetings. The only reason why some kids see Hebrew school as a hassle is because of the emphasis families place (or more accurately don’t place) on it. Want proof? Not one but two local synagogues have kids who routinely compete in – and win –  international Bible competitions. The kids can’t wait to get to class, but then again, the parents don’t portray it as a waste of time either.

My point is, the article begins by unfairly framing the “problem”, and then setting up remote learning as a “solution”.

Telepresence and Torah

Depending on how you look at it, I’m either biased or I have experience with the subject: For the majority of my job, I telecommute from home. One of my (high school age) children attends an online school from the comfort of her bed, couch, or any other surface she can slouch upon. “Remote” in our house means more than just the thing that turns the TV on.

So it’s understandable that I think that online (Jewish) learning is a fine idea. I love TropeTrainer – my kids used it in tandem with a “regular” tutor, and I use it myself for those (admittedly rare) times I overcome my fears and agree to read a few verses of Torah at synagogue. I think that the internet has a lot to offer with regard to Jewish text study, chevruta discussion, and building overall skill and fluency with Hebrew.

Another friend (and educator) put it this way: “Learning is a very different matter, and takes place over every medium possible and conceivable – I don’t know of any smoke-signal shiurim, but it would be entirely kosher. I’ve seen groups gathered around a speaker phone, Skype shiurim, there’s Dial-a-Daf, Dial-a-Halacha, Dial-a-Mikvah (okay, I made up that last part)… telepresence and Torah are great companions.”

So I was disappointed (but not surprised) when I detected an almost palpable sense of fear in some of the responses to the NYT article (like this one). An altogether too common subtext in synagogues today is “If they don’t use our services, why would anyone want to join?” (read “pay dues”). I hear that same note when discussing High Holiday tickets – “members have to be paid in full or they don’t get their tickets”.

Why?!? If a synagogue was certain nobody would pay dues unless strong-armed by this “fee for services-to-be-rendered” model, I submit that there’s a bigger problem to solve. Like having a community that people actually WANT to be a part of.

Getting back to the NYT piece, my response to organizations who feel threatened by distance learning is this: If you are staffed with skilled teachers who engage students, distance learning isn’t going to pose a “threat” to your education department. And if you are a learner who is unsatisfied by the classroom options you have available, stop whining and start Google-ing.

Distance Praying… not so much

Getting together by Skype or conference call or whatever and praying together is, in my view, the same as praying alone. That’s not bad, but it’s not a minyan either.

My friend Michael makes a forceful argument to the contrary, and that decision (that electronic minyanim “count) is the rule over at OneShul.

In the end, it doesn’t hold with me.

But as Michael says about those who disagree, “…fine! That’s your right!” and if his worst crime is to have “encouraged people to pray together, to get to know one another, and to encourage each other in performing mitzvot…” in an online context I think the world is still a better place for his efforts. And there are benefits to joining online prayer experiences (Shulchan Aruch acknowledges them in a roundabout way), but it’s still not a minyan and is best left for an essay on another day.

In the end, it doesn’t hold with me, and with a relatively large segment of the (praying) Jewish population. The NYT article gives the impression that online davening is (or should be) an accepted mode of collective worship. I just don’t see that happening.

I also think it was reckless of the writer, because it ignores the heart of the matter.

Missing the Point

What I’m driving at is that Judaism is built around the idea of community, and of communities within (and sometimes across) communities. B’nai Yisrael divides down into Cohen, Levy and kol Yisrael (“everyone else”). Synagogue communities as a whole are comprised of people who count in the minyan and those who don’t (for whatever reason). Mourners are their own community – found both inside a particular synagogue but also viewed as a kehillah of their own which transcends congregational boundaries.

Judaism is, at it’s heart, a social behavior: without 10 people physically present together, there are simply some things we cannot do. Judaism is about direct communication: The highest honor ascribed to Moses was not his leadership or the miracles he performed, but that God spoke to him face to face. Judaism places a high value in being there: Our moment of birth as a nation was at Sinai where, we are told, not only were the newly freed Israelites present, but also the soul of every person who would accept the covenant – past, present and future. Nobody “phoned it in” that day – every soul in the universe clocked in and showed up for work.

To those in the article (and elsewhere on the internet) who say they feel deeply and/or emotionally connected to an online community, I say that’s great. But odds are many of the members of that community are your typical mix of lurkers, one-time-logins, and trolls – along with a core group of active participants. That simply can’t match up to a real group of people who really show up to be in the same room together and take part in a religious experience.

“Community” is about “communion” – not just the exchange of words but also the dynamic and fluid perception of and responding to  tone, inflection and body language that continuously happens in a room of people. Without everyone present to participate in that chemical reaction, you have an unbalanced relationship.

Even working remote as I do, I still go into the office for a week each month. Do I get more done there? Nope – less in fact. But that “face time” is both necessary and impossible to duplicate remotely.

The same goes for a minyan. When we pray together we are reciting very specific communal ideas, desires and in some cases vows – to which we often respond “amen” (literally “I believe”). It seems irresponsible to blithely agree as part of a group if you can’t fully appreciate the dynamics of that group.

In my opinion, for praying together there is no “memorex” option. It’s either live or it’s not happening.