The path to the World to Come is self-muting
By Edward Hamburg
In a recent essay entitled “Thoughts on the Amidah in a Pandemic” posted on the jewishlive.org “Wilderness” blog, I wrote:
“Like so many congregations around the world during the coronavirus pandemic, mine on the Southside of Chicago has maintained the responsibilities, disciplines, and gifts of a daily morning minyan.
The format is, of course, quite different. Video-conferencing platforms designed for business meetings imperfectly replicate the context of regular minyanim. Parts soulfully sung in unison are rendered painful as software sound delays combine with variations in microphone and voice quality, kavanah is elusive as participants fiddle with their computer cameras, and rhythms are interrupted by barking dogs, crying children, and task-oriented spouses unloading dishwashers.
But the positives clearly outweigh the negatives. These electronic gatherings enabled Hallel to be recited on Rosh Chodesh and Passover, Kaddish to be said by mourners and for yahrzeits, Torah portions to be read each Monday and Thursday, and communities to have a sense of normalcy and solidarity during a time of fear and isolation.”
Electronic davening was thought to be a stopgap measure to help us get through a few weeks of sequestering-in-place. But with each passing pandemic day, communities are confronting the possibility that electronic participation in prayer will not only continue for some time; it will also get integrated into the limited physical gatherings permitted in the coming months, foreshadowing a Jewish future in which both corporeal and digital presences are honored, encouraged, and facilitated.
This future, however, could be problematic without the introduction of some recommended behavioral courtesies designed to preserve Virtual Shalom Bayit. We can start by learning to practice the following Ten Protocols of Electronic Davening:
1) Mute thyself. Self-muting is the now-holy, voluntary, generous act of audio abnegation. Discover how to invoke this powerful facility in popular video-conferencing systems, and use it courageously.
2) Control your movements. Even subtle actions, like shuffling papers or slurping coffee, get picked up by your headset or computer’s microphone, as are the more egregious rapid-fire machine-gun-like keyboard tappings when you respond to emails and surf the net. Bring these movements to consciousness – and even consider delaying such activities until later. Of course, self-muting solves this problem completely.
3) Carefully engage with others. If you must interact with others in your life (children, spouses, pets, your inner demons) during the davening, remember to self-mute before the onset of such interactions.
4) Be mindful of your bodily noises. Headsets or computer microphones efficiently transmit heavy breathing, throat-clearing, post-nasal dripping, and the usual coughing and sneezing. These are kavanah killers; avoid performing them while electronic davening. Of course, self-muting solves this problem completely.
5) Be a responsible electronic follower. If you are not leading the davening but accustomed to either singing along or quietly speaking the words at the same time, you are often interfering with (and hijacking) the transmission from the leader. Please lower your voice, take a few steps back from the computer microphone, remove your headset, or any combination of these remedies. This protocol also applies to participants earnestly emulating the Biblical Hannah soundlessly moving her lips in prayer – too often this practice evolves into audible whispering that’s picked up by your microphone and heard by all. Of course, self-muting solves this problem completely.
6) Be a consistent electronic leader. When leading services, if you’re using the computer’s built-in camera and microphone, pick a position and stay with it so your video and audio transmissions are consistent. Changes between sitting and standing at particular points of the service can cut you off visually and alter, sometimes significantly, how you’re heard. Also, discover Bluetooth: wired headsets were introduced in the twentieth century, and despite their improvement over the years, more capable wireless equivalents hit the market at the turn of the millennium and are even better today. Bluetooth makes for more effective and flexible electronic davening generally and leadership in particular.
7) Forget about singing in unison. It just doesn’t work for electronic davening, and there are simply no current solutions to the problems involved. Leaders should consider using alternative melodies at the parts of the service typically involving congregational singing.
8) Think before using “Chat” functionality. Not only do these messages get entered with annoying keyboard taps (see #1 above), they also can be very disturbing to good davening – particularly when sent to “Everyone.” Moreover, be careful when private chatting with another minyan participant; exchanges – particularly those inducing laughter or emotional outbursts – get displayed and heard by all participants and can disturb the collective davening experience. Of course, self-muting solves half of this problem.
9} Discover Silent mode or the Do Not Disturb function on your cellphone. Just like you do at the movies. The alternative nuscha’ot introduced by unsilenced cellphones are more than annoying; they are a modern pestilence, killing kavanah everywhere, but especially in an electronic context.
10) Have a video presence. If washed and dressed, you should be on camera to demonstrate to others that you’re part of a shared davening experience: a screen with just your name or initials doesn’t convey the same message. If you don’t have a camera, a recent photo will do. Also, avoid alternative virtual backgrounds or showing off your pet.
As with the Ten Commandments, these Ten Protocols will undoubtedly be hard for a stiff-necked people to follow in the days, months, and years ahead. But we must try. For we’ll be fellow travelers on what could be a new and exciting journey, one where we may learn how to transcend limitations of space, expand definitions of community, and explore new ways of sharing our lives as Jews.
May we continue to go, electronically and physically, from strength to strength.
Edward Hamburg serves on the boards of directors of high-technology companies as well as such Jewish organizations as Sicha: The Conversation and The Institute for the Next Jewish Future. His previous contributions to eJewishPhilanthropy include “Thoughts on Prayer and Liturgy” (15 January 2016) and “Thoughts on Saying Amen” (12 December 2014).