With the use of technology on the rise and our interconnectedness increasing, it is no surprise that for many Jews, the intersection of worship and tech – iPads, Kindles, projections screens, you name it – would be the next step. To understand the reasons for this and its implications, we spoke to Rabbi Daniel Medwin, publishing technology manager for the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform rabbinic organization, about the movement’s much-praised iT’filah siddur app and what it may mean for the future. In the comments below, let us know how you feel about digital technology and your own prayer life.
New Voices: I’d like to discuss where you think this kind of e-prayer stuff is headed. Do you think a time will come when a majority, or even half, of the progressive Jews practicing their faith will be doing so through their iPads, Kindles, etc?
Medwin: I think our society as a whole is moving more towards using digital sources for our content rather than printed materials. The questions regarding this transition for prayer are not really “if”, but “when” and, most importantly, “how.” In terms of when, this transition could take a long time. On the one hand, we’re already seeing congregations where one can find a handful of iPads in the pews, or on the bimah. On the other, we’re the People of the Book, and we take our practices and traditions very seriously. As one example, we still read from a parchment scroll every week, even though the technology to access that text has been upgraded in other areas (e.g. printed books). I’m pretty confident that by the time the generation of children growing up today become adults and leaders in their communities, it will seem more weird – and limiting – for them to pray from a printed book than a tablet or eReader.
Although, just because our society is heading in this direction, doesn’t mean we should do so, or do so blindly. The “how” of adoption and transition are crucial. What we create and use has to be appropriate for worship settings and for prayer. Just because we can create a digital siddur, doesn’t mean it can actually facilitate a better prayer experience. Ultimately, it’s a tool, which can be used well and appropriately, or not. Right now, for many folks, the idea of using a tablet in services is absurd, since it represents a very different context for them, e.g. work and/or play. For some people, there is also the issue of using technology on Shabbat, which is partly a halachic issue, but partly also just an issue for some of wanting to unplug on Shabbat. However, just as a printed book can contain prayers, games or a trashy novel, so too can a tablet. The blessing and the curse of the tablet is that one can switch back and forth between those and more, much more quickly and subtly.
What kind of benefits does this offer rather than, say, a hardback siddur or haggadah, other than the very obvious cool-factor?
The rate of adoption will depend, in a large part, on whether digital liturgy can offer more benefits than drawbacks than a printed siddur or haggadah. Early adopters will be drawn in by the cool factor, but mainstream adoption will depend upon seeing significant steps forward. Some of the benefits already exist in the iT’filah app today, and some are a part of our long-term plans for the app.
Today, the app offers a number of features which allow for a more fluid user experience, and a great study tool, not to mention the benefits for those with vision impairment. For example, the app has a table of contents of the service in the margin, noting one’s current location within the service, and allowing one to jump quickly to a particular prayer or page, just by tapping. No more flipping through the book trying to find the right page. Also, one can find audio files embedded on many of the pages of the digital siddur. These can be great study tools for someone learning the prayer at home, and in some cases, might even function as musical accompaniment for synagogues or prayer groups who aren’t fortunate enough to have musical leadership. Additionally, for those who have trouble seeing small text, the page can be enlarged on the tablet, and along with the backlighting, it is a much more pleasant reading experience.
There are a number of other features we have planned for the next generation of the app, based on available technologies and feedback from clergy and laypeople in the field. Ultimately, we are at the very beginning of this process (the iPad is hardly two years old), and I’m certain we’ll refine features as we go, and include features we couldn’t have even imagined today. Check out facebook.com/itfilah to stay updated and join in the conversation.
Are there things that these apps can offer that a standard prayerbook or text can’t, from a layperson’s perspective? I say layperson simply because many rabbis find this material appealing on its own merits, without having to be convinced of its usefulness, or even kosher-ness from a tradition standpoint; many laypeople will not make that assumption at the start.
In addition to the features I mentioned above, one of the main benefits to laypeople is the accessibility of the liturgy. For example, in most cases, synagogues purchase prayerbooks for the community, rather than individuals. So, if an individual wants to study or learn the prayers at home, they have to figure out how to buy their own, or borrow one from shul. Once one has a tablet, downloading a digital siddur is simple. Beyond this, as a learning tool, there are many features that are theoretically possible in digital form that are not possible in a printed book. For example, one could tap on a Hebrew word and find the meaning. One can have access to notes and commentary that would not be feasible to include in a printed book. There are so many possibilities that this digital medium provides, the questions will shift from, “Well, what can this do for me?” to “Why doesn’t it do this? Or this? Or that?”
Is there anything you’d like to add? What’s your background with this app?
This app has been a dream of mine since I first started working for the CCAR two years ago. As is the case for most things in today’s age, it is an ongoing work in progress. There were a number of decisions I had to make, with the support of my colleagues, that were difficult and not easily understood at first glance. For example, many users have mentioned the desire for the app to function in landscape mode, as well. However, due to design and programming constraints, it is not possible at this time. However, this work combines my life’s passions of Judaism and technology, and I am honored and excited to have the opportunity to help guide the Reform movement, and perhaps Judaism as a whole, into the digital age.