Jews, God and Videotape: An Interview With Jeffrey Shandler

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America in the 20th century saw an explosion of technology that was unprecedented. People, whether they were comfortable with it or not, had to confront and respond to technology in one shape or form. Media technology has arguably had the greatest transformation. With new ways and venues to communicate, the Jewish community, as well, has had to respond and adjust to the new realities of Western society.

Jeffrey ShandlerJeffrey Shandler’s book, Jews, God, and Videotape: Religion and Media in America (NYU Press, 2009), discusses this very issue. Shandler, a professor of Jewish Studies at Rutgers University, was kind enough to sit down and answer some question about his research.

Can you give examples of some positives and negatives of the effect media technology has had on Judaism?

Jeffrey Shandler: What I find interesting is that sometimes the same communications technology can inspire some people to see it as positive for Jewish religious life, while others see it as negative. For example, shortly after the advent of commercial sound recordings at the turn of the 20th century, some cantors made recordings of khazones (cantorial music) and saw this as a way of enhancing Jews’ (and sometimes others’) ability to engage with this music.

At the same time, other cantors not only refused to make recordings of khazones but also denounced those who did and described the practice as sacreligious. There have been similar debates over the past century about film, radio, television, video, and the Internet. As a result, there is anything but a uniform understanding among Jews as to how to use of these technologies in religious life.

While technology can allow religion to be sent to the masses, do you think there is a fear that the Judaism that people know may become less authentic? 

The issue of “authenticity” is one that religious leaders and others in the Jewish community have raised (and similar conversations go on in other religious communities as well). This concern often comes up when a new medium makes it possible to document or disseminate information or activities in ways that were previously unavailable. For example, the videotaping of life-cycle celebrations (weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs, etc.) has prompted some to question whether the video compromises an “authentic” religious experience–say, by interfering in how participants engage in the ritual, knowing that they are being filmed.

In my book, I argue that video has become so pervasive a presence in the celebration of these rituals that, for some people, the making and watching of the videotape (often right after the ritual is performed or even during it) has come to be seen as integral to the ritual experience–in other words, the video extends the “authentic” experience, rather than interfering with it.

Jews, God, and Videotape

Which Jewish group has utilized technology to the greatest success? 

Part of what makes this topic so interesting is that, at one time or another, every major Jewish religious group has made use of the new media of the past century. For instance, in the middle of the 20th century, the Jewish Theological Seminary produced weekly national radio and television programs (under the title The Eternal Light), which brought the Conservative movement unprecedented public awareness. Toward the end of the 20th century, Lubavitcher hasidim began to make extensive use of video and broadcasting to reach out to Jews around the world. Today, the full spectrum of Jewish communities makes use of the Internet, though they each do so in different ways.

Do you think Judaism is apprehensive about media technology? 

On the contrary, I think that during the past century engaging new media technologies has become a fixture of Jewish religious life across the spectrum of its religious communities. The inventory of Jewish religious sound recordings, films, radio and television broadcasts, videos, websites, and other works of new media is extensive and continues to grow. How this body of work varies over time and from one community to another is interesting in itself. And even when an individual Jew or a group of Jews decides not to make use of a new medium, the fact that they engage in debating its possibilities is of significance.

What do you think the future is for Judaism’s relationship with technology? 

It’s hard to know what will come next technologically, but given the extensive engagement that Jews have had with the new media of the past century as part of their religious life, I expect this relationship to continue to be very rich, with regard to both the creation of new works of media and the ongoing discussion of the implications that new media have for Jews and their religious life.

Posted on July 29, 2009

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