Virtual Reality Minyan
Michael from Montreal asks:
I wanted to know whether a virtual reality minyan
would be acceptable according to Judaism, because there are small
communities all over the world for whom it is hard to get a minyan
I know you're not going to believe this but a very similar question was asked by a famous Halachic authority about 250 years ago! Rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi (The Chacham Tzvi) in one of his responsa writes about whether a Golem may be counted as part of a minyan. (A Golem is a man-made creature. The kabbalistic work Sefer Yetzirah is said to contain the secret method for making such a being. It looks and acts like a person but does not have a human soul. The Talmud refers to famous scholars who were said to have made them. The Chacham Tzvi in his responsa says that his grandfather was known to have made one.)
At first blush you may not connect a Golem with the nine other participants in a virtual reality minyan. However, they really are quite similar. Essentially they are both man-made creatures that act and look like people but are missing a human soul. Rabbi Ashkenazi proves indirectly from one of the famous references to a Golem in the Talmud, that a Golem may not be counted as part of a minyan.
Professor Alvin Radkowsky writes in an article in B'or Hatorah that such a Halachic discussion in fact touches upon the nerve of one of the most troubling questions to face modern man. In an age of incredible technological advancement when nothing seems beyond our reach, what is man's place in this world? (I think it was Woody Allen who once lamented that his father was laid off from his job and replaced by a computer chip that did everything better than he did...shortly afterward his mother bought one of the chips for herself.) The Golem is such a creation. It can be stronger, more efficient, and have more endurance, but there is one area that technology will never enter and that is the world of devotion. A computer-generated image cannot be counted into a minyan.
The Torah says in Parshat Yitro:
"And if an altar of stone you will make for Me, you shall not build it of hewn stones; for if you lift up your tool upon it it, you have profaned it."
Rashi in his commentary on that verse quotes a Midrash which says:
"...for the altar was created to lengthen the days of man. It is not right that that which shortens life should be lifted up against that which lengthens it..."
Generally that Midrash is understood to mean that metal is symbolic of weapons which shorten man's life. But I once heard Rabbi Twerski in Milwaukee explain that metal is in a broader sense a symbol of technology-human achievement which has "shortened" man's life in the sense that tasks that once took a long time are now performed must faster. The message of the Midrash is that there is no technology of the spirit.
- Rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi - Shaelot V'tshuvot Chacham Tzvi, responsa # 93.
- Professor Alvin Radkowski - B'or Hatorah Magazine.
- The Torah - Parshat Yitro, chapter 20, verse 22.
- Rashi - ibid.