Co-Presence Technologies (part 2): Praying together in a digital age

By Elad Ben Elul • MSc Digital Anthropology (alumnus)

In the previous post I discussed the importance of analysing and designing co-presence technologies. I argued that these technologies help us think beyond the convention that communication tools are only meant to bridge people across geographic distances. In this post I will further elaborate on the importance of technology for co-presence by discussing the Jewish practice of prayer and communal studying in a social event.

Veten Helkenu is a non-profit organisation that distributes monthly booklets with daily teachings of Judaism. It branches from a 96 year old tradition called “Daf Yomi” (“page of the day”) founded by Rabbi Meir Shapiro. According to Rabbi Shapiro’s vision, Jews all over the world should study the oral components of the Torah (also known as Mishna and Gemara) in sequence and in synch, forming a global community of spiritual scholars. This tradition is now known as “the longest running Jewish book club in history” and aims to overcome global dispersion and diasporic life by establishing a virtual community of learners. Those who persist with their daily learning will complete an entire cycle of Talmud study each seven and a half years.

Rabbi Meir Shapiro, founder of The Daily Page (Daf Yomi)

One of these cycles was completed just last month and the organisation decided to celebrate the occasion in a festive event with music, food, and (of course) joint studying. Students from across Israel and the world arrived to the rooftop reception and saw their study peers face-to-face for the first time. It was a strange situation: on one hand these people study from the same booklet every day, consuming the same spiritual “food”, and living in synch as a virtual community for the past seven and a half years. On the other hand, they have never met each other and therefore felt shy and unfamiliar. The gap between veten helkenu‘s profound joint experience on the virtual realm and lack of familiarity on the physical realm echoed many challenges of the digital era, mainly our struggle to communicate with strangers outside mediated technologies.

This has changed when the sun started to set and it was time for “Maariv” (or “Arvit“), the ancient Jewish prayer signifying nightfall.  Like many other prayers in Judaism, Maariv must be recited communally with at least 10 Jewish men present. About a hundred people gathered under the sky and pulled out their mobile phones. When in Synagogues, worshipers use prayer books (called sidur) because of the long textual components and their complex structure. The prayer books act as note sheets that coordinate between all the worshipers and their messenger (Shliach Tzibur), who leads the prayer, very much like a conductor leads an orchestra. When Jews are asked to pray in more random and spontaneous settings (or simply outside a synagogue), more and more of them turn to their mobile phones and use a digital version of a sidur.

Praying together and in synch using mobile phones

As all the worshipers pulled out their mobile phones and started praying together, a close bond was formed between them. This was not the obvious bond of chatting, laughing, or playing but a deeper spiritual state whereby each individual belongs to something greater than himself. The prayer focuses on wishes for peace, wholesomeness, piety, and the return of the great temple. These blessings are meant to set common goals and values to an ancient ethno-religious group, connecting them to their creator on one hand and to 3000 years of shared history on the other. My main point is that prayers create a meaningful state of co-presence.

The digital format of Jewish prayer books usually come as applications that spread out the entire Jewish prayer cycle according to daily blessings, shabbat prayers, and holidays. It allows anyone with a mobile phone to access all prayers wherever they are. However, as so many prayers require the presence of 10 worshipers this technology does not focus on virtual encounter or geographical distance. Instead, it aims to facilitate, mediate, and conduct co-presence. In that sense, the community of Veten Helkeno was able to overcome their shift from a virtual, non-proximate, scholarly community with profound shared time cycles and spiritual diets into a physically proximate, co-present, community. This transition was completed after the prayer, when everyone gathered in the hall and studied the last mishna together from the booklet. What they studied alone-together for seven and a half years was now materialised in one physical space, with the aid of a large screen (another important technology of co-presence).

Large screens are a typical technology that facilitate co-presence

It was the unique weaving of digital technologies and jewish culture, therefore, that made the co-presence of virtual learners more flowing and coherent. In my next (and final) post I will describe co-presence technologies in mass social gatherings such as music concerts and how they bring multiple strangers closer together.

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