Minyan via computers
In "Ask the Rabbi" Issue #12 we wrote about a virtual reality minyan comprised of computer-generated images, and we received a number of follow-up replies:
Michael Auslin of Illinois wrote:
I read with interest your comments that a virtual reality minyan is not halachically acceptable. I have a variant question on the same theme. Is it acceptable to get a minyan by linking ten Jews on a real-time computer chat line (for example) and praying in a 'virtual community? In this case, it seems, the issue of soul is not a problem since there are ten living people who are interacting with the aid of technology. How does Judaism regard the creation of new communal spaces that are not physical in nature?
Eugene Marner wrote:
Aren't you missing the point of Michael Lugassy's question? I gather that he is asking if worshippers (of whom I am not one) can't form a minyan by praying together over the net. They are creating electronically the bonds of community and shared devotion that are denied them because of their lack of proximity to other worshippers. What has that got to do with Golems or images? Your reply seems like nonsense.
Ellen Solomon of NYC wrote,
Perhaps I am mistaken, but I thought that a virtual reality minyan would have human representatives technologically gathered together. In other words, no robot would be involved, but rather there would be real individuals behind each transmission. I don't really understand what a golem has to do with it.
Dear Michael, Eugene and Ellen,
I must take responsibility for any misunderstanding that arose from my presentation of Michael Lugassy's original question. I presented his letter leaving out examples of the kind of people that he wanted to include in his virtual reality minyan, e.g., Maimonides. I left out his examples because I thought that my use of the term 'virtual reality' implied artificial people, hence my comparison to a golem. Your letters do suggest an interesting possibility -- one that I would like to explore. What would be the halachic status of a minyan formed via computer?
The Mishna in Tractate Megillah says:
"... the congregation is not led in prayer and the Priestly Blessing is not said, nor do we read from the Torah...[in the presence of] less than ten..."
The Talmud teaches that the source for this concept of a minyan and the number of people which comprise it is the verse: "And I will be sanctified amongst the people of Israel." The Talmud derives this information by means of a standard method of exposition.
What we need to know is whether a minyan requires 'physical proximity' or not?
The Shulchan Aruch writes:
"We require that all ten be in one place and the Shliach Tzibbur [the Chazzan] must be with them. One who stands in the doorway so that if the door were closed he would be outside is considered outside [not in the place of the minyan]"
We took our question to Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg, shlita, one of the world's foremost halachic authorities. He told us that even if all of the people were audio-visually connected via their computers they would not constitute a minyan, because the people need to be in 'physical proximity' to each other.
This is not to say that there are not possibilities for the lone worshipper to be 'connected' in some halachic sense to an already existing minyan via computer.
The Shulchan Aruch writes:
"One should try to pray in a Synagogue with the Tzibbur [congregation]. If because of extenuating circumstances he cannot, then he should pray at the [same] time that the Tzibbur prays..."
Rabbi Scheinberg mentioned that if you were connected to a minyan in such a way that you could hear the congregation praying, that would satisfy this requirement of prayer 'at the same time' as the congregation. You would also have the added merit of responding to 'matters of Kedusha' -- Kaddish, Barchu, the Kedusha..., which are recited by the congregation. He told us that he has a remote audio hookup to a nearby sunrise minyan. He is elderly and cannot be at that minyan in person, but at least he is praying 'at the same time' as the congregation, and responding to the 'matters of Kedusha' recited by the congregation.