Visual Tefilah (Prayer)

warsaw roof visual prayer

Behold the liturgical future: projecting words of prayer and graphic images on high-capacity double screens set up on either side of the ark up on the bimah (prayer platform). The idea is to project the prayers of the prayerbook onto a shared common screen and to provide visual cues (kavvanot). A lot of this is being developed by Rabbi Dan Medwin, publishing technology manager of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, who wrote his 2010 rabbi’s thesis on this topic. Like television or video, will this new imaging technology rivet the attention of otherwise bored and distracted congregants? Is this one more version of the book’s demise, the demise of the prayer-book and congregational Pentateuch with haftorot (supplemental readings)?

Is it truly understood how hideous “our” religious life is, and will visual tefilah make it only more so? As for a final opinion, I’ll remain agnostic, but here are some initial reservations,, none of which have anything to do with the second commandment, but which are internal to visual culture and visual theory.

[1] The first problem with visual tefilah is the problem of bad art, not “idolatry.” If you’ve seen any of the promotional material, you’ll note that the images are simply awful. Examples include Hebrew prayers and English translations  crawling over heavily filtered pictures of sunsets, mountains, craggy biblical landscapes, pastel abstracts, and so on and so on. Instead of encouraging the imagination to wander in and around the service, the order of prayer is reduced to overproduced displays of underworked holy kitsch.

[2] The second problem is not good taste or bad taste per se, but is, instead, specific to the question of medium. One can point to more than hundreds of historical examples of illuminated synagogues, including ancient floor mosaics at Beit Alpha and the glorious frescoes at Dura Europa, elaborately carved figures in wood and stone, and the painted wooden synagogues of Poland. These all involve  still or static painted and sculptural images, which being static do not dominate the eye or rivet attention. Contra Benjamin, I am less sure about moving images, which demand more constant and absorbed states of fixed and attention. In their stillness, paint and wood enjoy a kind of meditative thickness, unlike the more tinny flat surface appearance of a video projection.

[3] Maybe it the problem has nothing to do with the image or medium and has more to do with corporeal kinetics and the mis-directed gaze. The eye is no longer free, no longer its own, but is rather drawn to a screen which dominates its attention. Note how the physical position of the screen directs attention not to the ark at the center of the bimah, but rather off course to either the left or the right side of the ark. My own sense is that the individual prayer book and Pentateuch are more intimate. They are ready to hand and held close to the body and to the eye are more adapted to less regimented, more free forms of wandering, distracted attention. The head bends down to look at the book instead of straining up to watch a screen. Or the eye leaves the page to rove more freely around the sanctuary hall.

But all this is theoretical, and perhaps all a little precious on my part. One would have to take a look oneself. Stepping back, I would pose two fundamental questions. Does the new technology work, for whom, and under what conditions, more so, less so, or not at all? And is it any good, visually, conceptually, liturgically? These are pragmatic questions, practically and theoretically.

Friends have already begun to chime in about this post at FB, and here’s my response. To a person, they all expressed more openness and interest in this form of tefilah. They remarked precisely on the ability of this format to focus the attention of the congregation and to intensify the experience.

To this, I can only fall back to the problem of taste. One of the things I “like” about synagogue is chatter and distraction, not intensity of focus!! I understand that’s an aesthetic choice, right? It’s also important to note that as a regular synagoguer, I don’t have problems re-finding my place or a place in the siddur. So there’s definitely a tension here between stuck-up old guard elitists like myself who are already committed, perhaps even ideologically committed, and more familiar with the familiar old liturgical order versus the larger lay community for whom a visual format might be quite helpful.

I’m actually willing to bet that some version of this ends up working very well for lots of different kinds of people. but you have to admit, the visuals are truly horrendous. maybe they could project up a little Rothko or Picasso or how about Munch???? I’d like to check it out, even though i’m pretty sure it’s not for me. But then again, it’s not always about “me,” is it?


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About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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