In Defense of the Online Minyan

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December 3, 2012

When Patrick Aleph and I started One Shul, the first online-only, community-run synagogue, we expected we would raise some eyebrows. And we have. Some who call themselves “more observant” want to know, quite frankly, “what the heck is an online minyan?” and “how can you justify it?” We’ve also gotten messages from Jews of all denominations and levels of observance who are scared of do-it-yourself Judaism. They seem to think Judaism requires some sort of mystical, pseudo-Talmudic, Torah-based barriers to “just anyone” running a religious service!

Luckily, that way of thinking didn’t stop our ancestor, Avraham Avinu. He taught those willing to be taught, and stood firm against the tide of social blindness running rampant in his day. Like Abraham, our goal at One Shul and its parent organization, PunkTorah, is to smash those idols and destroy the barriers that are keeping people away from Judaism.

Today, we have new tools to break those barriers, like the internet and the ability to stream a service live. Actually, this use of technology isn’t really as big an innovation as you’d think. Rav Mordechai Freidman, in a shiur on electronic reproduction, notes that “the gemara in Sukkah 51b relates that the synagogue of Alexandria, Egypt, was so large that they had to wave flags so that the people in the back knew when to answer ‘amen.’” The online service is essentially the same thing; we are sending out “electronic flags” to all those participating so that the community can join in prayer simultaneously.

Some might argue, well, what if people can hear each other but are not physically present to each other, cannot see each other for example. The Rambam tells us, in the Mishneh Torah (Tefillah viii), that if a minyan is distributed between two adjoining rooms and the shaliach tzibbur, the service leader, is standing in a doorway between the two, or even within earshot of both rooms, all involved can be counted for the minyan. Rav Soloveitchik adds, “even if one is in another room, he may still have the advantage of tefillah betzibbur, just as he may respond to devarim shebekedushah” (Mipninei HaRav [2001], p.41). Translated, Rav Soloveitchik is saying that even those in another room from the service leaders may participate in a service and be included.

What do these rulings mean in the twenty-first century? Our computers act as doorways, giving us access to the live sight and sound of the service leader. As long as everyone can hear the leader and participate, there really is no reason why all who are watching and participating can’t be counted in a service minyan.

In short, if you are looking for halakhic authority to support an online minyan, you can find it. What matters most to us, however, is that praying and connecting to G-d is itself a mitzvah—literally a commandment, but also the center of Jewish spiritual experience. As Rav Friedman argues, each mitzvah needs to be examined on its own merit. Right on. By live streaming services, we have found a way to connect more people to G-d.

We live in a world where live, streaming services, Skype, and IMing are a reality. We live in the 21st century, and pretending it’s the 3rd, 10th, or 17th isn’t helping anybody. Getting people to come together and pray is.

If you think what we’re doing is wrong, or not halakhically acceptable, fine! That’s your right! The Talmud is basically a bunch of rabbis arguing with each other, and in most cases there is no clear “Rabbi A is right, Rabbi B is wrong.” If you disagree with what we are doing, please do not participate.

When I have to stand in front of my Creator (which I believe I will) and say that I encouraged people to pray together, to get to know one another, and to encourage each other in performing mitzvot, I will gladly accept my punishment if what I have done is halakhically incorrect. But I believe that it is better one person does a mitzvah out of my mistake than if none do, even though I live a righteous life.

Also see this PunkTorah video dvar Torah, on this week’s portion, Parshat Yitro:

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