Ask the Rabbis | What Role Should Virtual Presence Play in Jewish Ritual and Community?

By | Nov 05, 2018


It’s a fundamental principle of Judaism that you are not obligated to do more than you can manage. “Says the Compassionate One: ‘Just do! And whatever it is you find to do, it will be pleasing to me’” (Talmud Bav’li, Bechoros 17b). In ancient times, if you couldn’t make it to Passover rites on the 14th of First Moon because your donkey had a flat hoof, then you’d try on the 14th of Second Moon (Numbers 9:9-11). If you couldn’t bring a sheep for your sin-offering, two doves would do. And if your doves flew the coop, a bag of matzah meal would do (Leviticus 5:6-11). Likewise, if you can’t visit your friend in the hospital because you blew a tire, a phone call will do (Ig’ros Moshe, Yo’reh Dey’ah, Vol. 1, No. 223). So if you can’t make it to shul, you can Google a shtiebel. In the words of the ancient rabbis: “The Holy Blessed One says, ‘When you pray, pray in the synagogue that is in your village. If you cannot pray in your synagogue, pray in your field. If you cannot pray in your field, pray in your house. If you cannot pray in your house, pray on your bed. If you cannot pray on your bed, think it in your heart’” (Midrash Tehillim 4:9).

Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Fontana, CA


I still remember when the internet was new. The weird sounds of your modem connecting meant you would soon be in contact with people and ideas that you could never have accessed before. This was particularly empowering for those of us who felt isolated, sidelined or otherwise marginalized by our identities, beliefs or experiences. Once online, we built communities of common interests and concerns that were far stronger than anything we had experienced in person. Today, we carry the internet in our pocket or on our wrists, often lamenting the way it erodes face-to-face communication. This may be true, but its power to convene has not diminished.

This is why Humanistic Judaism continues to actively promote online celebrations, study and other opportunities. It’s why my colleague Rabbi Denise Handlarski founded From that site she convenes “Jewish, Jew-ish, Intermarried, In-married, Unmarried, Secular, Cultural, Atheist, Agnostic” folks in order to make available “an accessible, affordable, engaged, inclusive, meaningful, and contemporary approach to Jewish learning, practice, and community.” Such communities operate in completely virtual spaces. Yet this does not detract one bit from the reality of these spaces for those who participate. In today’s world, Jews need both virtual and physical-presence communities. Ken yirbu—may they continue to multiply!

Rabbi Jeffrey L. Falick
Birmingham Temple Congregation for Humanistic Judaism
Farmington Hills, MI


In an ideal world, everyone would participate in community in person. But some are hospitalized or homebound, lack transportation, are caregivers or are in remote locations. In such situations, virtual presence can feel holy.

My shul streams High Holiday services for the homebound or hospitalized. Similarly, I’ve included distant or homebound relatives in lifecycle events and shiva minyanim via iPad. It can mean a lot. In my 15 years of blogging at Velveteen Rabbi, I’ve learned firsthand that strong pastoral, emotional and spiritual connections are possible online. Today those connections might happen via Facebook Messenger or Twitter direct message, but they’re every bit as “real” as pastoral encounters face-to-face in my study. I participate in a weekly text study with friends who live in different cities. And often on Friday evenings, my son and I FaceTime with my parents 2,000 miles away. Both of these feel real.

Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (z”l) spoke of “logging on” to the cosmic mainframe. The internet itself can be a metaphor for God, the matrix of interconnection in which all are held. At its best, the internet connects us. Sometimes this is asynchronous, as when a seeker has a spiritual question in the middle of the night. Sometimes it’s synchronous, as when a virtual minyan gathers to daven. Virtual presence isn’t the same as being there in person, but it can be a lifeline.

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
Bayit: Your Jewish Home
Williamstown, MA


Rather than what role virtual presence should play, I would rather address what role it can play, because the answer depends on how much it can enrich each individual’s Jewish life and growth. The opportunity to access virtual study and prayer is a tremendous gift for those who are housebound, live far from metropolitan Jewish communities or feel ambivalent and want to try something out at a distance. I have enjoyed the increased opportunities to study online and to teach classes to those who otherwise could not attend. That said, there is no substitute for live presence and the kind of interpersonal connection and learning it fosters. I don’t mind sacrificing this so more people can study together. But I am reluctant to do so for prayer. As the prayer leader in the synagogue, I want to focus on those present with me, and a livestream feed would be distracting. I also value the privacy of those who are in the room, immersed in prayer, song or Torah discussions. If they knew that their comments, voices and movements would be online, some might not feel free to be fully present. So while I appreciate the great work of my colleagues who livestream, for me personally, prayer and presence go together.

Rabbi Caryn Broitman
Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center
Vineyard Haven, MA


A simple web search reveals dozens of congregations offering regular livestreaming of Shabbat and holy day services, as well as b’nai mitzvah, weddings and funerals. Youth movements and summer camps offer virtual Havdalah. Family and friends separated by geography “meet up” for a virtual shiva minyan. These types of virtual gatherings are a new norm.

The weaving together of “in real life” (IRL) and virtual relationships can help people find community, build relationships and sustain bonds to people and places. Research shows that technology can be a means of maintaining communal connections and relationships that have been established IRL. Associations that begin in the virtual world can become bonds of real-life friendship and community.

The wonders of technology allow those who are not able to be in the same physical space together to still feel present. The challenges of distance, immobility and finances are overcome, and those who may be otherwise absent are present in the moment. When we use technology to preserve and deepen relationships, it can be a powerful tool to create intense moments of connection and transcendence.

Rabbi Laura Novak Winer
Fresno, CA


When my youngest daughter became a bat mitzvah, my mother, who was in her late 80s, was unable to travel from Chicago to Springfield. My mother was alert and very aware that she was missing this important family celebration. She definitely felt isolated and alone that weekend, and we were sad about it. But in May 2014 my congregation was not ready to install a camera in our sanctuary and livestream its worship. Since then, our Ritual Committee has studied the issue, and we now livestream nearly all of our services.

We understand that the virtual experience is limiting. Obviously, it is better to be present. So much is sacrificed by not being in the room with the community. But for some people, that just can’t happen; the virtual experience is all they have. I am so relieved that our community has the resources and vision to realize that we must make ourselves available to those unable to be present. One of the Hebrew names for a synagogue is Beit Knesset—a house of gathering. With the help of technology, a synagogue can convene community from near and far, for the strong and weak, for the hearty and the frail.

Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz
Temple Beth El
Springfield, MA


The great advantage of virtual participation in prayer and in community is ease of access. This greatly increases the number of those who join in (at once or later, when the event can be replayed). However, the intensity of the experience tends to be low, because filtering through an electronic medium does not generate the powerful magnetic field of physical human presence. Also, since participants have made much less of a commitment to join, they frequently put in less energy and are less affected.

Orthodox authorities typically demand more from participants, and the community’s hold is strengthened by the intensity factor in its life. Therefore, the general policy has been to require actual physical presence at prayer and community events. Correspondingly, there are frequent rulings that one cannot fulfill prayer or covenantal obligations through virtual participation.

Personally, I think that the Orthodox policy may have been too one-sided. Perhaps a more balanced use of both methods might increase participation while preserving intensity and personal impact.

Rabbi Yitzhak Greenberg
Riverdale, NY


Technology can’t change how we do ritual. Halacha is very specific: Even people in close proximity can’t form a minyan with a wall between them, even a wall with an opening. So you can’t just pull someone into a minyan by plugging him into your conference call. Curiously, though, I think that restriction keeps healthy the expansion of community that technology does allow. Social media has allowed wonderful things to happen. The internet has brought Torah to people who might never encounter it; in many yeshivas, everything is now recorded and shared. The downside is that some people’s best friend is their mouse, which is not always healthy. Halacha guarantees the best of both worlds: Jews remain people of real, not virtual community, because they have to get together in the same time and space.

As for livestreaming Shabbat or Yom Tov services, it reminds me of the old question: If you’re commanded to hear the shofar, but there’s no shofar, can you use a trumpet? It’s not a substitute; it’s something different. Prayer can always be done privately, but group prayer is never passive in Torah life, so watching it from a distance is like sitting in the stands at a ballgame instead of playing on the field. For a patient in a hospital bed, there are halachic leniencies. But for someone who just happens to be 900 miles away, the leniency wouldn’t apply.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Los Angeles, CA


Virtual presence should play a very large role, as great a role as possible. We believe that G-d allowing an invention to be introduced brings a way—and we must seek it—to use that invention for His service to make the world better.

I remember “Chanukah Live” in the late 1980s, a program in which I was involved, where Hanukkah celebrations around the world were linked via satellite, a big deal in those days. Some questioned the value. But almost 30 years later, a woman came to our office seeking VIP tickets to the National Menorah Lighting on the White House Ellipse. She tearfully relayed how her husband had been diagnosed with a grave illness and was all but certain this was his last Hanukkah. And she recalled how in the Soviet Union of the late 1980s, where she lived at the time, seeing the Chanukah Live broadcast and its celebration of Jewish life in the open inspired her and her husband to reengage in Jewish practice and with the Jewish community in Moscow after many years of hiding.

There are times when halacha mandates actual physical presence, and that can’t really be changed. And there are other times when physical presence is the optimum. But sometimes only the virtual will reach those  unable or unwilling to attend in person. For those times where it is acceptable or permissible to reach and include people by using technology, we must embrace the opportunity fully. Go!

Rabbi Levi Shemtov
Executive Vice President, American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad)
Washington, DC


Virtual prayer is not new. It has been around for roughly 3,000 years. King Solomon opens the inauguration of the Temple (I Kings, Chapter 8) by declaring that God dwells in the cloud: He asks God to heed the prayers of his people, as well as those of other nations who will have the Temple in mind while they pray. In exile, Jews remained connected by chanting prayers at set dates and times. Isolated and cut off from others, they found comfort in knowing they were part of a larger, albeit unseen community. Today, as virtual minyanim, learning groups and spiritual sessions proliferate, some protest that this is not how Judaism is practiced and that if people need to pray they should come to the synagogue. I fear they fail to see the full spectrum of Jewish life. Many wish to come to synagogue but are bedridden, have no transportation, are used to a particular style, live on an island or isolated military base or, sadly, cannot attend services because of personal tensions with congregants or even the rabbi. How wonderful it would be to afford everyone the opportunity to join a minyan anywhere, anytime! Orthodox shuls are lagging behind, but there should be no problem for them to install a webcam and broadcast live feed of their services. (Of course, when they do that, Moshiach will come.)

Rabbi Haim Ovadia
Potomac, MD

One thought on “Ask the Rabbis | What Role Should Virtual Presence Play in Jewish Ritual and Community?

  1. Jewish Universalist
    Rabbi Steven Blane
    New York, NY

    Sim Shalom has been online since 2010. We are the world’s only FULLY ONLINE synagogue offering participatory weeknight, Shabbat, Festival and High Holiday Services. While we offer yearly sold-out High Holiday Services at the iconic Bitter End on Bleeker Street in Manhattan, all of our other Services are online and hundreds of people from around the world join us weekly by texting, messaging and posting all in real time. In addition, we offer an online Jewish Conversion program culminating in Conversion overseen by an online Bet Din. Sim Shalom and Jewish Universalism embraces online worship not necessarily as a bridge to a brick and mortar community, but also as a full time viable alternative.

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