There comes a time in most Jewish debates when matters hit a final snag and someone says, "We need to ask a rabbi about that."
These kinds of questions tend to be both practical and theoretical, nitpicky and cosmic. In that spirit, the organizers of next week's Jewish Web/Net Week (www.JWW.org) are asking this question: How many Jews have to be camped on the Internet to somehow equal the spiritual clout of the 600,000 who gathered 3,700 years ago at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah?
By the way, do all these people have to be online on at the same time? What if they gathered in different chat rooms? And what would happen if, when the 600,000th person signed on, everyone in this global assembly stopped and prayed this ancient prayer: "Blessed are You, our God, creator of the Universe, Knower of Secrets."
"There has always been this understanding that if you could get that many Jews together at one time and have them pray that prayer together, then three would be some mysterious meeting of the minds and spirits," said co-director Yosef Abramowitz, editor of the online magazine called Jewish Family & Life! "The idea is that we might learn something new about who we are, learn some truth with a capital 'T' or even some secret known only to God."
The event begins Saturday (Feb.21) with a "pre-game show" in Jerusalem. In addition to targeting the symbolic 600,000 figure, organizers have lined up 613 Web sites to take part -- the precise number of "mitzvot," or commandments, which shape Jewish life. The week will end with three 4 p.m. prayer services on Friday, Feb. 27 -- just before the beginning of the Sabbath in the time zones in Jerusalem, New York City and Los Angeles.
No one really knows what to expect, said Martin Kaminer, the event's other co-director. At the very least, the project will try to create a sense of community in an era in which the pursuit of any kind of spiritual unity has become one of the most divisive issues in Judaism.
"That number -- 600,000 -- has great power. It suggests the totality of the Jewish people or even the totality of human knowledge," he said. "I went over to Jewish Theological Seminary and asked the rabbis what kind of secrets we might hope to learn by taking part in all of this. Of course, as is the case with any Jewish theological question, there turned out to be more opinions than there were people. So who knows?"
The seeds of this event where planted last June at a technology conference sponsored by the Jewish Educational Service of North America. The goal has been to bring together groups of Jews that, under normal conditions, wouldn't even sit at the same table for discussions of issues such as intermarriage and conversion. Thus, the roster of sites linked to Jewish Web/Net Week ranges from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's home page to pages run by his fiercest critics on the Israeli left, from ultra-Orthodox education projects to hip sites plugging alternative forms of Jewish spirituality.
At least 70 sites will offer live programs -- from storytelling sessions to singles parties, from artistic fun and games for children to adult forums led by entertainers, politicians, journalists and scholars. Those with multimedia computers will be able to tune in six channels of music and commentary. Throughout the week, programmers will collect images, prayers, stories and opinions to include in a final online prayer service. Children can help build a digital mural to mark the 50th anniversary of the modern state of Israel.
And there will be a dizzying number of chances for people to ask all kinds of questions to all kinds of rabbis and to hear all kinds of different answers.
"Right now, so many groups in the Jewish community are, literally, not even on speaking terms," said Abramowitz. "Yet we've got all of them hooked up to this in one way or another -- from the ultra-orthodox all the way over to the most liberal Reform groups. That's a minor miracle in and of itself."