Open Letter to My Students 8: On a High-Holy-Day High

These High Holy Days were game-changers. 

As to place, most of us videoed from the sanctuaries, rabbi here and cantor there, musicians and choir (if there was one) scattered or dubbed in. Some had real congregants in place, masked and at safe distances. Others did it all by toggling back and forth from private homes: cantor here, rabbi there, Torah read from somewhere else.

As to time, most people videoed some of the services in real time, but along with backdrop readings, imagery and music prepared in advance. Others videoed everything in advance, and became congregants to their own prerecorded services. 

But place and time were secondary to the real issue: our first serious foray into post-print culture.

Liturgy is always a product of technological competence and the culture that technology permits. In the Rabbinic oral culture of late antiquity, worship was like jazz: an agreed-upon outline of an underlying liturgical structure, but dependent on the local artistry of the prayer leader, unencumbered by a book with fixed wording. There was no davening, for example, because no one had a book to daven from; most people listened to the prayer leader and made short responses – repeating a line or saying Amen. Liturgy was as hoc, local, face to face, unmediated. 

With print, words became fixed, and with fixity, came detailed halachic or theological strictures (which themselves required writing down for study and for reference). Worship went beyond the immediacy of the prayer leader’s artistry to include the private experience of engaging with a book. Print also expanded experiential residue: the oral prayer was not capturable, except in individual memory. Print provided a permanent prayer text and endless written commentaries on it. 

For some time now, we have been flirting with the post-print culture; but just flirting. These “covidic” High Holidays have forced the issue.

I saw three responses to the challenge:

Double Down: Some congregations insisted on doing the service as if these were ordinary High Holy Days but with congregants at home, zooming and livestreaming. Those of us who love services as they always were got them again, just that way: long sermons, a full Un’taneh Tokef, all those confessions, and the music that we know and love. Especially on Yom Kippur, that worked, I imagine: sitting there fasting, what was there to do but follow the service from beginning to end? And there was comfort in the familiar, not to mention a sense of proud defiance, doing it all despite whatever the enemy named Covid could throw at us.

Adapt: Other congregations adapted the usual service to fit Zoom limitations. They included what they could but scaled down in size – like “the best” of an opera for people who want the arias and story but not all five hours of it.

Reimagine:  Some people did more than allow for the new technology; they embraced it, and reimagined the liturgy for it. Check out, for example, two Temple Micahs: one in Nashville and another in DC. They reconfigured the liturgical staples; added imagery and video; translated captions of moving Hebrew songs; had an artist paint an ongoing mural to reflect the prayers being said. They reshaped and repackaged it all to accent the High Holy Day themes – for a global congregation attending from around the world. 

Cultural evolution is expansive, like the expanding universe itself: new technologies, that is, do not replace old ones; they enlarge them, the way quantum mechanics didn’t replace Newtonian calculations, but just accounted for phenomena that Newton couldn’t. Worship in the oral culture of the Rabbis who started it all was immediate, face to face, and unrepeatable – it could not be saved, revisited, pored over for meaning, and passed along from generation to generation. Worship in the print culture that we are leaving behind was still face to face, but it was mediated by a written script that shaped it. The script developed halachic strictures; rules multiplied; verbal creativity died and musical inventiveness did double duty: same old words from one Shabbat to the next, but an infinite possibility of musical settings.

Covid has exposed the limits of print-based worship, where a single text becomes sacrosanct even if much of it is outdated, aspiritual, and unmoving. Our diminishing core of regular worshipers love that text, but for twenty years or more, we have been playing to fewer and fewer regulars who come less and less and are older and older. The goal, in any event, was never to venerate the text; it was to facilitate the experience of prayer, and that experience can still be enormously compelling – as we learned from the reimagined worship on the post-print technology these High Holy Days.

The new technology which is virtual does for print what print did for orality: it further expands our reach and our capacity to archive and even relive it. Most important, the worship performance itself becomes critical; not just the written script for it.  

Equally significant is the fact that the expanded worship network on Zoom, Vimeo and Facebook, challenges us to redefine what “congregation” means. We have always had two congregations: the regulars and the rest, but now we reach a virtual congregation of untold hundreds or thousands from virtual platforms that we are just beginning to appreciate. 

Print culture took half a century to mature.  The stodgy printing technique of Johannes Gutenberg (circa 1450) made prayer books possible. But it took mechanization, the steam engine, a rotary press, and much much more, to create the multiple prayer books of the last two centuries. And only now, do we have multi-colored prayer books with aesthetically designed layouts, and accompanying art.  

Our 21st-century zooming is like the 15th-century Gutenberg press! It is far too early to imagine fully where virtual worship will go, but wherever it goes, we will get there faster, now that Covid has forced us into its early stages. We will surely return to congregational worship face to face, not just virtual participation at a distance; and we won’t utterly abandon print. But virtual presence (with its worldwide web of worshipers) beckons, and we would be fools not to invest our time, means, and creativity in it. 


3 responses to “Open Letter to My Students 8: On a High-Holy-Day High

  1. AMEN

    > >

  2. Hi, I’m wondering why it is that live-streamed services would be related to a need for change in presentation? What is it about the traditional framework that you find problematic in this format? That is, what is it about which liturgy is included or how it is presented that you think should be reimagined in in this new format? As a millennial myself, I’m just not sure that the diminishing core of younger members is related to sticking too closely to the canon or to a lack of “performance.”

    • My comments on liturgy are not directly related to millennials at all. Whether and how we speak to millennials is a different issue, albeit related. My observations on technology and worship stand on their own. New technologies always favor changes of some sort in the service. We now take for granted the entirety of a multi-page siddur, word for word. But that idea came about only with literacy (first) and then printing (afterward). Sometimes our siddur even has errors embedded in it, but some people insist on saying the prayer in question, errors and all. The psychology of print enables us to believe that every word matters — mystics count the letters, add up their equivalents, believe that the esoteric meaning is embedded in them. Nothing can change. Shabbetai Sofer (16th-17th centuries, Poland) wrote a siddur along with a letter to cantors demanding they change nothing on that account. We are now in a post-book era, so I simply raise the question of what the new technology favors. For most people, sitting at home alone, and staring into a zoom screen, davening page after page as if being together in a minyan at shul is just not a cogent option. If it is for you or for others, I have no quarrel with it at all. But for many, it isn’t, so I caution rabbis and cantors to think through optional approaches that make the very best use of the technology before us, and not try to force the worship of yesterday’s print-culture into today’s zoom-culture.

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