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.

Posted on July 29, 2009

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