Space, the final frontier. If you grew up during the late 60s and 70s that is a phrase that is familiar to you from Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek series. in almost every episode there was a scene where Captain Kirk would conduct a crucial conversation, often with a villain, via the huge ‘flat screen’ video monitor at the front of the bridge of the Enterprise. Back in the day it looked so… well, so science fiction. How could you ever, in real time, talk with someone via video? Let alone the size of that screen!
Of course today we live in an age when video chatting has become common. Everyone with an iPhone can ‘FaceTime.’ Everyone else uses Skype, from the oldest to the youngest (in fact often grandparents talk with their grandchildren via Skype). And now we all have huge flat screen video monitors in our living rooms and dens. My oh my, the more things change the more they stay the same. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy would be quite comfortable with our modern technology.
But would the rabbis of old? Jews have been quick to adopt cutting edge technologies. The Talmud was available on a CD Rom (remember those?) early on. Smartphones have minyan apps that tell you where the closest service is being held, and even give you the siddur text right on your phone screen. Of course Shabbat is a problem, and most of those apps won’t work on Saturday (they also deserve a day of rest!). And the question of how a minyan can be formally constituted is still an open one. Can people make a ‘virtual’ minyan, skyping or facetiming with one another from remote locations to make the required 10?
Often the Jewish legal literature has been uncomfortable with this. A tradition as old as Judaism still wants real people in a real place. But I had an experience Sunday night that made me think about the entire issue differently. I went to conduct a shiva minyan for a family that had lost its wife/mother. The widower, just after the funeral, needed to check in to the hospital. But the shiva was at his home. How could he participate in this ritual? His son is a technophile, and hooked up an iPod in his father’s hospital room and one in the room in the shiva house where the minyan was to be held. Before the service, people sat in a chair in the shiva house and video chatted with the widower. When the service started, he could see from his hospital bed, through the iPod, his son and me, conducting the service, and he could hear all of the participants. He had a siddur with him, wore a kippah, and had two friends, also with prayer books, in his room. He participated in the service. When we said shema, he said it with us. Most importantly, when his son stood to say the words of the kaddish, he could say the kaddish as well, seeing his son, and saying the words with him, sharing together in the loss they have suffered.
Whether this truly one day will count as a minyan for that widower or not, only the halachists can say. But I can tell you this. In his mind, that widower had fully participated in the shiva service for his wife. I also suspect that all those who were at the house, on the other end of that video/audio conduit, felt he had as well. And one last thing I would say about it – without question in my mind, all the way around, it was a mitzvah.