I read a fascinating piece in the New York Times this morning: A Question for Seder: What Role for Screens? by Jennifer Medina. This raises all sorts of questions about the use of technology in the exercise of faith. Here’s the set up:
For many Jewish families, this Passover night will indeed be different from all others.
As they gather around the dinner table on Monday for the Seder, some families will forgo passing around wine-stained copies of the Haggadah, the book used to guide the evening and one of the most ubiquitous volumes in Jewish homes. Instead, they will be tapping on their Kindles, tablets or cellphones, downloading in unison whatever version of the ceremony they plan to follow.
It is a remaking of the Seder for the e-reader age. Despite the fact that traditional Jewish law considers the devices forbidden on Passover — strictly observant Jews refrain from using any sort of electronic device on holidays, as they do on the Sabbath — dozens of versions of the Haggadah are now available in digital formats, where enhancements to the text include pop-out windows and videos meant to bring alive the story of the Exodus.
Some Say “Yes” While Others Say “No”
As you would expect, some people are pleased with the technological innovation:
“We want to keep the kids paying attention, instead of dryly rushing through something with people all looking at how-many-pages-until-we-eat while the kids are trying to start tossing parsley at each other,” said David Salama, 36, an anesthesiologist in Huntington Woods, Mich., who downloaded four Passover-related apps on his phone in recent weeks.
Of course, not all Jews agree.
In the most traditional circles, of course, there will be no e-Haggadot at the table. Even among less religious families, replacing a book that has been used for centuries with a phone or tablet can seem a taboo.
And then there are some who are trying to find some middle ground:
“There is a place for using apps and all kinds of technology to prepare for the holiday, but I would prefer to do that beforehand so that when you’re actually at the Seder you’re actually speaking to one another,” said Rabbi Daniel Nevins, the dean of the rabbinical school of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, which ordains rabbis in the Conservative movement. . . . .
Even among makers of digital Passover content, there is some ambivalence. David Kraemer, the chief librarian and a professor of Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary, helped create the Haggadah App in 2012, one of the first on the market and still widely regarded as one of the most comprehensive. Mr. Kraemer himself adheres to the rules against the use of electronics, but welcomes his guests to use devices to follow along. Last year, one non-Jewish guest used his app to learn how to sing the traditional Four Questions in Hebrew and used the transliteration on his iPad to recite it at the Seder table.
“If it enhances the richness of this experience, maybe that’s a good thing,” Mr. Kraemer said. For those who are eager to employ a YouTube clip, there is an endless array of choices, including dozens of renditions of “Let Us Go,” a parody of the popular anthem from Disney’s “Frozen” and a take on the story of the Four Sons in the Haggadah.
If the use of digital technology helps some Jews experience Passover with greater understanding and engagement, does this mean it’s a good thing? What might be some unintended negative consequences?
How should we think about the role of technology in our lives? In our faith? In our traditions? When should we say “yes”? When should we say “no”? When should we say, “yes, but”?
How can we know when technology is enriching our lives? How can we know when it is cheapening our lives?