Breaking the Code of Ritual Observance

Opinion

By Shawn Landres

Published December 05, 2007, issue of December 07, 2007.
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In a widely reproduced 1994 article, novelist and semiotician Umberto Eco famously argued that “Macintosh is Catholic and that DOS is Protestant.” In that spirit, and with apologies to the maestro, imagine for a moment the technological backbone of Jewish communal worship. The vast majority of it looks remarkably consistent, but around the edges there are new alternatives gaining popularity and drawing the attention from the traditional market leaders.

Established synagogues have all the advantages of Windows, an operating system base used in more than 90% of computers around the world. We know how they work, we recognize them wherever we go, and in return, we tolerate their shortcomings.

We are loath to switch to anything else because we’re not sure about compatible software, and we’re pretty sure that anything else won’t run on our existing networks. No matter how user-friendly you make the interface, Windows is, well, Windows. At the end of the day, though, Windows gives us the security of knowing that, as it has for millions of others before us, it will get the job done.

So much for the mainstream. Admittedly, for most American Jews who attend services, the answer to “Where do you want to go today?” is an established synagogue. But not for all.

As Synagogue 3000 and Mechon Hadar discovered in a recently completed study of spiritual communities across the nation, a growing number of American Jews are being drawn to three different types of emerging organizations: lay-led independent minyanim, rabbi-led emergent communities and alternative emergent communities that defy simple classification.

Each operates, if you will, by its own code.

Can a Leopard change its spots, or a Tiger its stripes? Creative rabbi-led emergent communities sure think so. The problem with Windows isn’t the user experience, much of which works very well, but the underlying operating system, which is out of date and hopelessly complicated.

Far better to start over on a Mac, with stunning graphics and impressive ergonomic design, preserving the best of what’s out there, but creating an interface that will ensure that the technology remains relevant to our everyday priorities. From time to time, certainly, they’ll reinvent the wheel, figure out something from scratch that they could have copied from Windows, just so they can say it originated on the Mac. But that’s part of the project: forcing people to take a second look at what they took for granted in order to finally appreciate the beauty of the still, small microchip.

Then there are the independent minyanim. They are the Linux operating system of the liturgical world. They’re free to use, have very low overhead, and every time someone comes up with an improvement or bug fix, it’s quickly disseminated throughout the user network.

For someone accustomed to Windows, many popular software programs look identical on a Linux machine — but what’s under the hood is a completely different story. This open-source operating system requires hyper-educated users who are confident programmers in their own right.

If it doesn’t exist, they’ll make it for themselves and workshop it with anyone who’s willing to play. They know exactly what’s wrong with Windows, and they don’t want all the bells and whistles that come with the Mac.

In addition to rabbi-led emergent communities and independent minyanim, there are a fair number of alternative communities that are none of the above. Depending on your point of view, and your openness to experimentation, these totally out-of-the-box groups are either widgets or viruses.

They’re either software enhancements and plug-ins that can work with just about any operating system, or they’re subversive code snippets that call the whole paradigm into question. In any event, they’re part of any healthy ecosystem.

So what does all this computer talk mean for synagogues and Jewish communal worship?

Like Linux itself, independent minyanim are at their core expressions of dissent, a call for authenticity as a return to origins: traditional liturgy, text study in the original, hospitality as they imagine it to have been practiced in the more intimate communities of their great-grandparents.

Their counterparts are found in rabbi-led and alternative emergent communities, who are disconnected because they are disaffected: they fear they have lost sight of the core meaning at the heart of faith. Their graceful, user-friendly Mac-like reinventions seek a return to soulfulness, prayer to be embraced and grappled with at the same time, learning that links text and world, social activism that recalls the passion of the prophets.

All of these strands are the very antithesis of disengagement from the Jewish community. They are part of a profound critique of communal religious life whose impact remains to be seen and is impossible to predict from its starting conditions — the very definition of emergent.

Shawn Landres is director of research at Synagogue 3000.


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