Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Judaism on the Electronic Frontier

(Originally appeared in the Temple Israel Voice, March 5, 2010)

The world is changing. On NPR this morning I heard that the United States Postal Service is considering halting mail delivery on Saturdays. Not because it is Shabbat, mind you, but because doing so will save $3 billion dollars per year, and the USPS is $9 billion in the hole. This is not entirely surprising, as email and Twitter and Facebook and all of the other paperless means gradually take over all of our interpersonal communication. I suspect that we are witnesses to a paradigm shift that will touch virtually everybody, or perhaps touch everybody virtually.

The Jewish world is, as I am sure you can imagine, slow to respond to the changing paradigm. Yes, there are a number of Jewish organizations that have attractive and educational websites, a few rabbis are keeping their congregants updated using Twitter, and even your humble correspondent has a blog containing some of his sermons and articles. There are even synagogues that broadcast their Shabbat services via webcam, so that the homebound can feel connected. But let's face it: you can't attend a minyan in cyberspace. There's no www.synagogue.com, where you can fulfill your religious duties, educate your children, celebrate a lifecycle event, and eat herring while schmoozing at kiddush.

Now, there may be a couple of reasons for the Jewish lag. For one thing, our tradition, written and "oral," goes back a few millennia, far longer than the U.S. Postal Service. The collected wealth of Jewish text (i.e. the Tanakh, Talmud, midrashim, commentaries, music, poetry, history, modern Israeli literature, and so forth) cannot be easily captured in 140-character niblets (the maximum length of a Twitter "tweet"). Furthermore, no matter how interconnected we are via social networking websites, ours is a tradition that requires physical presence, actual human bodies in the same room, to be done properly. I hope that I never see the day (or night) on which the tale of the Exodus from Egypt is recounted electronically, with nobody sharing the same salt water in which to dip their parsley, and no-one else around the table to whip with a scallion (a Persian custom).

Of course, it is important to note that I grew up under the previous paradigm, in which newspapers flourished and book publishing was a healthy, profitable industry. My daughter will never know a world without the Internet, and will grow up with the comforting knowledge that everything that she needs can be found with just a few keystrokes. I wonder if she will ever read To Kill a Mockingbird or The Great Gatsby from a well-loved, dog-eared paperback, or puzzle over Rashi's comments on a page of the "traditional" Vilna layout of the Talmud (which only dates to the 1880s). She may never understand what I long for in the tactile sensations associated with reading material printed on paper.

Yes, we are limited now by certain halakhic impediments to, say, reading the Torah electronically. But, as the leaders of Orthodox feminist groups have repeated as a mantra for years, where there is a rabbinic will, there is a halakhic way. Most of the Jewish bookshelf is now available electronically; I have seen more than one person davening in a weekday minyan, reading the prayers from an iPod. How long will it be before the next generation of rabbis, the one that might include my daughter, permits what seems anathema to me?

On some level, I keep hoping that our newfangled, low-voltage social networks will cultivate within us an even greater need to be with others, although I am not seeing evidence of this yet. Perhaps it will take another generation of adapting to the new reality to see this low-tech rebound. But meanwhile, as we watch our electronic appendages embed themselves further into the consciousness of our children and grandchildren, I must wonder aloud if Judaism must knuckle under to technology, or remain firmly entrenched in the paper- and parchment- based world of the past, isolated and irrelevant? I hope that we can find a middle ground, one that embraces all that is wonderful about this brave new world, and yet maintains the face-to-face contact, the manner in which God spoke to Moses on Mt. Sinai, that our faith necessitates.

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