Several years ago I attended a session at the Biennial Conference of the Reform movement (the Union for Reform Judaism) on the visual benefits of projecting the prayer book and the weekly Torah portion onto large screens in place of prayer books. It was at the time a new way to draw a congregation together while freeing the pews of books and papers. Though I understood the benefit of having the text available in plain sight to everyone present, especially in a large congregation, and the ability to add new songs and poetry that are not contained already in prayer books, I was uncomfortable with it and preferred then and still prefer to have an actual prayer book in my hands.
Having said this, at my congregation we use large screens for prayer twice a year, on the mornings of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur at our family services with pre-school age through first grade children, their parents and grandparents. All the 700 in attendance need to do do is look forward towards the bimah and there they can read/sing the blessings and view colorful illustrations and photographs. For this particular population, projected prayer works well.
It’s one thing, however, to use projected prayer and illustrations/photographs for small children and their parents, and it’s quite another to use it in place of prayer books at Shabbat services for elementary school-age students, teens, and adults.
In recent days on the private Reform Rabbi List-Serve called RAVKAV where rabbis talk to each other about anything and everything of current concern, there has been a thoughtful discussion about the benefits and deficits of projected prayer in place of using actual siddurim. I found the discussion provocative and engaging, and so I shared some of the posts (I removed the writers’ names to maintain confidentiality) with my fellow clergy in my congregation. I received the following statement from our cantorial soloist and music director, Shelly Fox. Shelly is a 2nd year cantorial student at the Academy for Jewish Religion (AJR) here in Los Angeles. She is a world class singer and a thoughtful, evocative and sensitive Jew and prayer leader. I share her words with her permission:
“It’s one thing to project the words to prayers and enable people to follow along and lift their faces out of a book and sing together, but once we start talking about projecting imagery and then taking it further and using a large screen LED TV for clear, bright images, now we’re getting into the territory of another screen to watch.
I think that when people see a TV screen they shut off their brains. They get lulled into watching, not doing. I also think that prayer is both communal and personal and to give everyone imagery to watch takes them out of their own heads. It’s my same argument to musical settings of prayers in what I call “interpretive English.” I am not opposed to singing prayers in English but it bothers me when a prayer isn’t a direct translation[i.e. from the Hebrew, Ladino, or Yiddish] but is the songwriter’s impression of the prayer. I want the freedom to interpret a prayer how I feel it, which can change on any given day or at different times in my life. Giving someone a specific image to look at while praying cuts them off from their own inner dialog. …I think this is part of a larger trend of the dumbing down of our society. The less people think for themselves, the less they engage in critical thinking. We will have a nation of people plugged into (lulled by) screens and that leaves them vulnerable to whoever wants to control them, be it for good or for ill.”
I agree with Shelly. After all, we Jews are Am haSefer – The People of the Book. I always prefer holding a book in my hands. I don’t read books on Kindle and though it’s more convenient to download books especially when traveling instead of carrying them in my luggage, I prefer the latter to the former.
A colleague wrote to me after I posted Shelly’s response on RAVKAV. He agreed with her saying: “We are a book culture — which means that we should be able to browse through a book and study it. The last thing we need is to strengthen our addiction to screens.”
Geraldine Mund said:
I have seen projected material used appropriately and used poorly. When used well it gives the clergy the flexibility to change the service -much as was done in the spate of homemade photocopied siddurim of the 1960s and 1970s. It lets the congregation sing new songs and participate in songs with substantial lyrics. It is more welcoming to newcomers, since the congregation members are not each isolated with their heads in a book. However, given the explanations in the TIOH machzor and siddur, I would not recommended it, except maybe for song lyrics. The sidebars in these books add so much to the individual experience. But if the siddur is nothing more than a reprint of the basic prayers and music texts chosen at some past date, screens can be terrific.
Marsha Pinson said:
Amen! Next could you please consider the problem of streaming services,(not for the ill or infirm) when used instead of coming together for worship. We are a People of the Book but aren’t we also a People of the Minyan and beyond? The benefits of joining others for prayer to build and sustain a community will surely be lost when people do not have to leave home for “communal” times of worship. Thanks.
Michael Rosove said:
I agree with having the prayer book in hand, and I’d suggest another reason. When I am holding a book of prayer, I am aware that it has been used, read, and worshipped with by people before me. Thus it is a tangible link to others, even if I don’t know who they might be.
Shelly Fox said:
I also think it’s important for students (of any age) to learn how to navigate a prayerbook. There’s a structure to it that I didn’t really understand until I started singing in church choirs and came to understand the structure of the Christian service, and am only now really learning about it in Cantorial School. I think the way our rabbis at TIOH explain the structure of the service to guests on Saturday mornings is very helpful and informative — something I didn’t get growing up in my conservative synagogue.
I agree about the physicality of handling a book and linking the action with the information — this is how we build neuropathways.
Cantorial Soloist and Director of Music
Temple Israel of Hollywood
With digital voice technology, we will not ‘need’ to read and with text messaging and social media, we don’t need to speak. We no longer need to write and soon, with algorithms making decisions for us, we won’t need to make our own decisions. The external, digital energy can, if we allow it, influence us more than we influence ourselves.
Contemplative prayer, introspection, reflection, purposeful thought as well as daydreaming are what bring the internal out into the world. How do we balance what is available to us with what we know, educationally and culturally to be beneficial to our minds, bodies and souls?
Once upon a time, not all of us read or wrote. Yet, we’ve always been the people of the scroll. The scroll was chanted in the marketplace and studied orally in the house of study. Today, we know that touching a book while we read, results in greater retention. Handwriting connects language centers in our minds.
If we say yes and yes, we can incorporate the wonders of voice, music, visual and experiential and balance these wonderful experiences with the reading of a book held in our hands, looking down to look inward, touching the words on the page, standing, sitting, bowing, lifting up our eyes and our voices. Screens can supplement experiences and be used to bring in community. While I don’t recommend the use of screens in services for families and young children, they are used to break down the barriers of the siddur and prayer. Today, because we spend so much time using digital technology, children (and adults) need to have even more opportunities to engage in the physical world as well as the spiritual internal experience. If we spend many hours consuming and using digital media, we miss out on opportunities to develop a connected mind, body and soul.
Head of School and Mindfulness Facilitator
Temple Israel of Hollywood Day School
Lauren Eber said:
All week at work I have to focus on PowerPoint presentations. The rare moments I give myself for prayer and reflection, when I carve out the time to get to services, I do not want to have to look at yet another PowerPoint or screen. I want to be able to daven, the way I learned how growing up, sitting next to my dad, moving in concert with the other people around me in shul, or at summer camp, like we are all privy to the same set of secret instructions, passed down by generations of our grandparents. Holding a book, swaying, bending my knees, raising up on my toes, turning pages at my own pace, focusing on a word or prayer that is speaking to where my heart is that day. I hope we are able to resist this intrusion of technology into our beautiful tradition of prayer, the most ancient act of what we now like to call mindfulness. We have so few moments for true introspection and reflection. Let’s not lose this one to yet another screen.