Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Synagogue as a Multi-Media Environment

Vestigial elements of past cultures persist within our own and affect our public discourse and our artistic creations. This notion is the basis of my recently published paper The Heart of the Matter (Proceedings, 2005 Media Ecology Association Convention) where I trace the concept of the heart as the seat of consciousness through various times and different media. Though we know today that the heart is not the organ of thought and memory, our casual expressions reveal the hidden vestige of past beliefs. We speak of memorizing “by heart.” Our song lyrics remind us that our heart is an open book, or a window into our true feelings and emotions.

Another good example of this principle of persistence can be found in most synagogues. Visit any Saturday morning Torah service at any synagogue and you will witness a multi-media environment that manifests traces of all the pre-modern media eras of mankind.

In my congregation, the Rabbi leads the service, but most of the heavy liturgical carrying is performed (literally) by the Cantor. The Cantor himself is a bard, a remnant of the oral culture of our ancestors. His chants employ mnemonic devices and multiple repetitions to enhance comprehension and memorization. He recites the Torah from a manuscript scroll to an audience who, while they aren’t busy making copies as would have monastic scribes in the Middle Ages, respond orally just like members of any pre-literate culture. At the same time, with all these pre-literate vestiges evident throughout the ceremony, Jews are characterized as the “People of the Book.”

While several media are represented in the Jewish service, they are all word based. Images are proscribed by the Second Commandment, and so pictures, paintings and sculptures are not allowed. No illuminated texts. And of course, no film, no video, no Powerpoints. So it could be argued that Judaism acts as a counterpoint to our modern mass media-saturated culture.

Neil Postman argued in Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century that our schools should operate as conserving opponents to the continuous non-discursive bombardment of electronic media in order to preserve and perpetuate the beliefs and values of the Enlightenment. These values include such things as individual liberty, rational discourse and democratic decision making. Along with the Sabbath and Holiday liturgy, other aspects of Judaism demonstrate a conserving characteristic very much in sync with Postman's suggestions. The Jewish holidays reflect remnants of the rituals and living conditions of earlier societies. Harvest festivals, year-end story-telling cycle celebrations, days of atonement and renewal, commemorations of significant historic events may not signify in modern cultures what they did to early farmer/shepards, but they act as reminders of other times and other places. Jewish males are circumcised, passing through a ritual of physical mutilation or transformation that corresponds to those of pre-literate societies all over the world. Jewish dietary restrictions also reflect those of pre-literate cultures, which, according to Claude Levi-Strauss, have less to do with what is good to eat, than what is good to think with.

Whether we will ever see a K-12 curriculum founded on Postman's suggestions is debatable. However, it is clear that the liturgies and rituals of Judaism perform this very function. By excluding non-discursive media, by copying and disseminating the manuscript form, and by actively promoting the practices of pre-literate chanting and poesy, Judaism confronts modern media-generated attitudes and beliefs and offers alternatives based on tried and true social and cultural practices.

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