Praying Without a Prayerbook: A "Hands Free" Shabbat
The Jewish prayerbook — the siddur — is a rich and dense work. What began in ancient times as a simple collection of biblical quotations and blessings, expanded as one generation after another added new layers. After two thousand years of accumulated poetry, prose and spiritual insight, we now have a prayerbook that reads like a conversation among hundreds of ghosts who lived in eras scattered over the centuries.
The many layers of the prayerbook, though, can sometimes be paralyzing for those who seek a meaningful prayer experience. There are so many words that one is supposed to say, and there are so many rules regarding how and when to say them. Some of the language of the traditional prayerbook is extraordinarily difficult and many of the references are obscure. Very few Jews have real mastery over it all. The very density of our tradition, paradoxically, can be the greatest barrier to experiencing it.
And sometimes it is the literal weight of our thick prayerbooks that pulls us down! Mishkan T'filah, the prayerbook used by the congregation I serve, weighs in at two pounds and eleven ounces. If you caught a largemouth bass that big, you could feel proud to hang it on the wall. It can be hard to have a spiritual experience when you feel weighed down by a book that bends back your wrists.
Last Friday night at Temple Beit HaYam, we tried an experiment to reduce some of the figurative and literal weight. We left our prayerbooks on their shelves and, instead, experienced a slimmed-down service in which the words were projected onto a screen. Some of the slides used in the service also contained images connected to the themes of the prayers. Our hands were left free.
The service was designed to inspire new ways of experiencing prayer and connecting with the ancient words of the prayerbook — even without a physical prayerbook present. We sang. We meditated. We danced. We watched the waters of the Red Sea part as we rejoiced over the words the Israelites sang when they were saved from Pharaoh's army.
Our congregation is calling this our "Hands Free" service. Since it was received well, we probably will offer it a few times a year. The same style of worship goes by other names at other congregations. The most common name in the Reform Jewish community is "Visual T'filah." Members of our congregation found that worshipping this way had advantages beyond simply taking a load off our laps.
For example, there is a long-standing tradition in our congregation of standing and holding hands during the Sh'ma. For as long as the congregation has been doing this, there has been an awkward moment when we put down the prayerbooks and try to balance them carefully on the armrests. At Friday night's service, congregants reached for each other's hands more easily and naturally as we joined to declare God's unity. Also, because the screen let us pray with our heads up — not buried in the book — we could make eye contact with each other and remember that we worship together as a community.
The screen also allowed me to display visual images during the sermon to help make my points. In an age when people are used to getting so much of their information by looking at a screen (you're doing it right now), the Hands Free service gave me a new tool to hold congregants' interest and to connect with them.
I will admit that I am a bit of a technophile and design geek. I enjoy a chance to play with computers and to experiment with different ways to present prayer on the screen. Creating this service was fun for me. I think there are a lot of Jews — particularly young ones — who will enjoy this marriage of Judaism and technology for similar reasons.
I know, though, that some will find that technology is a barrier to experiencing Shabbat the way they want to experience it. The mesmerizing quality of television, computers, smartphones and tablets is what distracts us from mindful awareness during so much of the rest of the week. Some people will ask: Why should we subject ourselves on Shabbat to yet another screen? I am very sympathetic to that concern.
Yet, I also think that there are ways we can use technology to make our worship deeper, more spiritually satisfying, and more joyful. Modern technology can seem threatening, but, at one time, moveable type also seemed like a threat. In time, we came to know that it is a powerful tool to enrich our lives. There is room to explore ways to use today's technology — the same technology that sometimes distracts us — to help us pay better attention to things that matter the most.
If putting the prayerbook up on a screen were just a gimmick — a novelty to attract temporary attention — I would be the first to say that it would not be worthwhile. I think it can be much more than that, though. Our capacity for spiritual experience is not stimulated only by words. We are visual creatures and we can respond with insight, wonder and delight when we translate the ideas of the prayerbook into images. We may even find that visual queues will bring some of the complex and abstruse world of the siddur to life for more people.
Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser is the rabbi of Temple Beit HaYam in Stuart, FL.