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600,000 virtual Jews

NEW YORK, Oct. 10 (JTA) — Are 600,000 virtual Jews just as good as the real thing? Yeshiva University senior Evan Lyman says yes, sort of, but his quest to create an online community has raised halachic questions that were inconceivable before the Digital Age. Lyman, 21, of Livingston, N.J., created the online Facebook group, “600,000 Jews.” Facebook is a popular social networking site for college students that allows them to create searchable personal profiles, befriend other members and unite around common interest groups. Lyman created the group Oct. 1 to round up the 600,000 Jews needed, according to the Talmud, to recite the blessing “chacham ha’razim,” or “knower of secrets.” The text of the blessing suggests that even with a multitude of 600,000 people, God knows each one. Lyman initially invited 150 of his Facebook “friends” to join the group, which grew to 1,421 members within three days. While many groups struggle to achieve membership numbers in the thousands — “The Biggest Facebook Group Ever,” which also was started by a Yeshiva University student, claims 60 members — simple demographics may put Lyman’s goal out of reach. “I’m Jewish and proud of it, but this group is way out of hand,” Marc Goldsmith of Hofstra University wrote on the group’s message board, questioning whether there are even 600,000 Jews on Facebook. Lyman knows his goal may be unrealistic, but he remains optimistic even while a debate rages on one of the group’s message boards about who is a Jew and who should be counted as part of the 600,000. The discussion boards have raised other questions of Jewish law. For instance, Perry Sasson, a Facebook user from Los Angeles, wondered whether all 600,000 had to be physically together for the blessing to be recited, and whether it could be recited before the Messianic age. Rabbi Barry Freundel of Washington had similar questions. “It doesn’t make any sense to me that online means you have any presence,” he says. “If that were true, then you could make a minyan,” or prayer quorum, online. Mark Washofsky, a professor of Jewish law at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, concurred. “Electronic communication does not substitute for space,” he says. “Communication is not the same thing as presence.” Washofsky says accepting developments such as “virtual” prayer partners would harm the concept of community. “To declare cyberspace a public space is encouraging tendencies of personal isolation,” he says. “It’s good policy and good sense for us to insist that the nature of the word” congregation is meant “to get us together physically as much as possible.” Responding to criticism on the message board, Lyman changed his original goal to merely “connecting” 600,000 Jews, without the blessing. “I didn’t want to have it on my shoulders that people were making blessings they weren’t allowed to make,” he says. But perhaps “600,000 Jews” offers a hint of what’s to come in the future. Rabbi Daniel Brenner, who directs the Center for Multifaith Education at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York, says the Internet could be useful as a religious tool, though it might still be too new for religious bodies to accommodate it. The Internet lacks a “certain embodied quality that is at the essence of the bracha,” Brenner says. “I just don’t think we get beyond the screen. We objectify the screen.” As computers develop into more complex virtual-reality channels, society and religion may come to view cyberspace interactions as more legitimate. For now, however, acceptance of the electronic minyan seems to stand little chance. “I doubt that an electronic minyan — that is, a ‘minyan’ comprised of people connected electronically — will ever be accepted by religious leaders or observant communities,” says Brenda Brasher, professor of sociology at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, and author of “Give Me That Online Religion.” Brasher often has wondered if a minyan could have its online cake and eat it too: connecting the core 10 Jewish men gathered in one place with other congregants who sit at home on their computers. Either way, Brasher isn’t convinced by the claim that electronic connections don’t count as essential encounters. “Too much of my research into religion online indicates otherwise. After all, we have all been face-to-face with people who have lied to us,” she says. “Religious groups are not immune to deception in their midst. People online are still people: Many are honest, a few can be quite problematic.”

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